American Southwest June 2003
Saturday, July 26, 2003
  log describes the journal of our trip to the Southwest in the end of June and beginning of July:

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

We had an early afternoon flight, so no big rush getting out of the house, which was great, as it is never easy to get all five of us ready on time. Usually, we take our van to the airport, but we decided to deviate from tradition and order a cab. Rick had called the night before and clearly explained we needed enough space for 5 people and a lot of luggage. What shows up on our doorstep??? A regular full size cab. Of course, the luggage did not fit and we fit like sardines, Kai in the front seat in the middle, not my ideal spot for him. We ended up fitting the luggage with bungie cords.

The flights were nice, a little bit of a weather delay from Chicago to Las Vegas, but nothing much. We had reserved a Ford Expedition with Hertz for our car rental, because at the time the Ford Excursion (behemoth car, but with all the space we needed for comfort, being that we were going to go from one hotel to the next). was not available. I made Rick ask for one upon check in anyway, and our luck held: they happened to have a black Excursion available. It was a *great* car! But I didn´t dare drive it, it was so big. So poor Rick drove the entire vacation!

Off we went in our black Excursion to the Caesar´s Palace hotel on the Las Vegas strip. There we were upgraded to a suite, apparently that happens a lot when you book only one night in a Las Vegas hotel, good to know! We each had our own bed, always a great thing!

After getting the luggage upstairs and all, we went down to dinner at Nero´s, the Caesar´s steak restaurant. Wonderful dinner, though the service left something to be desired. The waiter seemed annoyed at any request and we´re not exactly demanding customers. But a good time we had anyway.

That night, the kids were tired, but of course, Rick and I wanted to try our luck in the casino. So Katja babysat and we played Blackjack (and lost some, we´re not big gamblers, so we always still feel we got at least the fun playing out of our money). Then, while Rick was converting the chips to cash, I just decided to stick a dollar in a slot machine and won $10! I know, nothing much for the seasoned gambler, but a thrill for me.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

We got up fairly early, as I had made dinner reservations at the famous El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon for 5pm.

After a quick buffet breakfast at Caesar´s (ok food, but I wish I´d ordered a la carte, as the lady at the table next to us had a wonderful looking dish with fresh berries), we piled kids, luggage and ourselves in the Excursion and went off to our first destination.

About an hour after leaving Las Vegas, we caught sight of Lake Mead. Incredibly blue amidst the red sandstone, it was quite a sight. A few minutes later we arrived at the Hoover Dam, the largest dam in the United States. There we looked around for about an hour. It was *extremely* hot, but a worthwhile site to visit. It´s definitely an impressive dam!

After the Hoover Dam, we had what seemed like an endless drive through arid Northern Arizona to the road that would take us to the Grand Canyon. Of course, for us, that landscape is highly unusual. What was also unusual, coming from the crowded East Coast was the lack of any town or anything to have lunch. We finally found one though and had a quick lunch.

We arrived at the Grand Canyon just in time to quickly check in and then head to dinner at the El Tovar.

At check in to the Maswik Lodge (about which I´d read some negative comments, but thankfully it turned out fine) we found out there was no airconditioning in the rooms. That made me nervous, but it really cooled down enough after sunset, that it was even cold in the room by morning.

The first view of the Grand Canyon was awesome, just as everyone predicted. It was a bit of a hazy evening, so we didn´t have a very far view, but regardless it was impressive. I was a little nervous at first about Kai and Saskia as in some places there was a steep drop-off into the canyon, even from the Rim trail.

We had expected to encounter large crowds, however, thankfully, it was much quieter than expected. The dinner at the El Tovar was great. Xanterra resorts, that runs all the National Parks lodges employs some great chefs, as the food was wonderful in all the lodges we visited.

Friday, June 27, 2003

We got up early, it helped to feel it was 3 hours later than we were living (that helped the whole vacation) and Rick suggested to go and get a bunch of breakfast bars, so we didn´t have to lose unnecessary time at breakfast.

After eating those in the room, we took off to hike part of the Bright Angel Trail. This is the easiest trail, but still quite a workout. Katja had poo-pooed me the night before when I said going down all the way to the river would be too much for an inexperienced hiker, but after descending (and especially climbing back up!) 1.5 miles to the first restpoint, she was eating her words!

All five of us went down, we were on the trail around 8:30, when it was not too hot yet. We also got passed by the mules, a fun part for the kids. Rick held Saskia´s hand and had her walk on the cliff side at all times. My time was spent making sure Katja and Kai didn´t venture too close to the edge.

On our way down, we met some people who had hiked down from the North Rim, spent the night in the canyon and then hiked up to the South Rim. They had even met people who were going to hike back as well!

One highlight was a condor flying right by, quite clearly recognizable by its red neck.

About a mile down the trail, Saskia and Kai really got tired and Katja and I were still raring to go. So we decided to split up: Katja and I would hike the rest of the way down to the first rest stop (with toilets and water) and Rick would take the other two slowly back up.

I was really impressed with the kids, as they all did so well! Kai got quite winded at the end, but he did make it back up (with my coaching), the girls did great. Though Katja will listen to me from now on, with regards to the hiking distances.

After the hike, we were all too happy to sit down for lunch at the Bright Angel Lodge. We were hot and thirsty (though we brought enough water down) and the airconditioning felt great (though it even got too cold for me, as my back was all sweaty from carrying the backpack).

After lunch we boarded the shuttle to see the West Rim of the Grand Canyon. We took it to the farthest stop at Hermit´s Rest, where there is a very rustic little shop. Then got off at Hopi Point and Mohave Point as well. What was fun about these points was, that you could see the Colorado River wind its way through the canyon. It´s incredible what a river can create!!! Every overlook was equally beautiful and unique.

When we got back, we had some time to watch the California condors fly their evening rounds. A tour guide had set up a large telescope and allowed everyone to look through. Especially for Kai, this was a great experience. All the condors have numbers tattooed on their wings, a bunch of them was released in the Grand Canyon about 7 years ago and now the task is to have them procreate. Apparently, that´s not easy, though there are 2 nests this year that look promising. They are certainly majestic birds, if not very pretty!

For dinner, we went to the Arizona room, which had really nice food, we have no complaints about the food at the Grand Canyon. The service was great too.

After eating, Rick took the youngest two to the store and then to the room and Katja and I took the shuttle to Hopi Point to watch the sunset. I had read the sunset might not be as spectacular as expected, but nothing seemed further from the truth! We got a spot so we were looking at a red stone formation and a yellow stone formation and the depth of color during the half hour or so before sunset was amazing! It also really helped to have some clouds show up to make the pictures more interesting. As always, we bonded with the people around us, who came from many places, including the Netherlands.

When we got back to the room, Kai was anxious to go look at the night sky and we discovered that Cassiopeia lurks on the bottom of the Southwestern sky, even when the guide makes no mention of it. Of course we saw the Big Dipper and several other constellations.

Saturday, June 28, 2003

Again, an early start with a breakfast bar. We left the Grand Canyon via the East Rim, which had as many gorgeous overlook as the West Rim. However, because of the forest fire, it was a lot more hazy than the day before.

Just before leaving the park, we stopped at the Desert View overlook and did a little souvenir shopping.

The landscape was downright interesting and we entered Navajo territory, visible by all the signs for trading posts. We also passed the Little Colorado river gorge, which I am sure would have been gorgeous, but we wanted to make some progress, so did not stop.

Our next stop was at the Sunset Crater National Monument. This is a volcano that erupted hundreds of years ago and left a bizarre landscape of black earth, lava blocks and interesting vegetation.

It´s no longer possible to go up to the crater (which we would not have done anyway, as it would have been quite a hike up), but supposedly it gets its name from the yellow, orange and black colors at the rim.

After looking around there for a bit, we went in search of a lunch place. We hit interstate 40, so we figured there would easily be something along the road (having been used to the busy East Coast for so long). Wrong!! It was easily another hour before we hit the town of Winslow and finally found a truck stop that served Mexican food. There Rick had his first taste of Navajo fry bread, a tortilla like fried bread, that is used to make sandwiches and taco’s.

With full bellies we entered the Petrified Forest National Park. The weather was the worst it would be the whole trip: overcast and we even saw a sprinkle or two. And the wind was unbelievable!!! We got into miniature dust storms (we regularly saw little dust tornadoes everywhere, weird!) and I was a little worried about the huge SUV.

Once we entered the park, the weather thankfully cleared up somewhat and we had some sun. Besides the petrified logs (which are interesting, but once you have seen one, you have seen them all), the landscapes were very unusual and interesting and at a spot called Newspaper Rock, you could view rocks with ancient Indian drawings.

At the end of the park is a very nice short 1 mile (one way) trail with gorgeous views of the Painted Desert. The trail also has signs for the different plants you come across in the area. Nice to do after the long car ride.

Around 4pm we entered New Mexico, a state I had not been in yet. We had booked the Holiday Inn in Gallup, NM for one night. Thankfully this was only one night, as it was the worst hotel we would stay in.

The rooms had no outside windows and the air conditioning was practically non-existent. It also turned out, that the rollaway, requested at the time of reservation, was not available. When I complained, the manager gave us the room next door for free, so that was definitely good service.

We went to dinner to a historical Inn in Gallup, called El Rancho. Apparently, actors and other famous people stayed and dined here (Ronald Reagan for one), but the “dining� was not much to write home about. Still, it was a fun place and interesting for sure!

Rick and the kids finished the night by taking a dip in the pool and I checked my email.

Sunday, June 29th, 2003

The Holiday Inn gave us vouchers for a free buffet breakfast, so of course we took advantage of that. We all agreed though, that we’d never had anything as bad before!!! But, I guess we can not complain about something free.

Today we would slowly make our way to Kayenta, near Monument Valley, by way of Canyon de Chelly (pronounce Canyon de Shey).

I had earlier found out I did not bring enough underwear and I was thrilled, in this desert of no civilization, to find a Walmart. So I stopped and got underwear before anything else! Phew!

We were planning on stopping in Window Rock, the Navajo Nation capital, but we somehow took a wrong turn and ended up going by the historic Hubbell Trading Post instead. Both ways led to Canyon de Chelly, so Window Rock had to wait for another time.

The trading post was interesting and we bought some jerky and a (machine made) blanket. They had a beautiful collection of handmade rugs, but they were prohibitively expensive.

We had lunch at the A&W in Chinle. That was just about the only choice there, even though the town looks fairly large on the map. From Chinle, Canyon de Chelly was just a few miles and we spent most of the afternoon looking around there. The cliff dwellings were fascinating, though we did not attempt the 1.5 mile hike down to see them up close as it was very hot and we feared it would tax especially Saskia too much, as she was very anti-hiking as it was. Plus we did not have cool water.

Canyon de Chelly is completely different from the Grand Canyon. It is all bright red stone with lots of trees at the bottom. The cliff walls are quite steep and the canyon can be entered at the mouth. Now, when the river is completely dry, the Navajos that live on the canyon floor just enter it by truck.

The rest of the drive to Kayenta was very scenic as well, large orange sand dunes and unusual rock formations all along. We were saying to each other, that over every hill and around every corner a new landscape would show its colors.

We arrived at the Holiday Inn Kayenta around dinner time. We checked in and went to dinner at the restaurant of the hotel (really the only decent choice in town, we kept being pleasantly surprised at how little touristy build up there was near major scenic attractions).

The food was good, but we found out that the Navajo territory is non-alcoholic, when we ordered a beer and wine and were served the non-alcoholic version. Funny how then suddenly you can really miss that treat.

After dinner, Rick and the kids went swimming again and I read the latest Harry Potter.

Monday, June 30th, 2003
The McDonald’s across the street provided a quick, drive-thru breakfast, which we ate during the 23 mile drive from Kayenta to Monument Valley. The closer we got to the valley, the hazier it became. It turned out there had been a wildfire nearby and this was the smoke from it. We were a little bummed and hoping that the wind would clear it out, which it thankfully did.

We looked around the store some and then undertook the 17 mile dirt road drive. Very beautiful. The kids immediately befriended a wild donkey and we came by some Hogans, traditional Navajo dwellings. We did not see anyone home, though and the sign said no photography without permission, so we did not stop.

The formations are amazing! You imagine yourself to be in a Western movie. It was not crowded at all, so we could our time stopping and taking pictures. As a matter of fact, I was surprised at how the crowds were not overwhelming anywhere, not even at the Grand Canyon. Maybe we were still not there at the height of the season.

After finishing the drive, it was about lunch time and we decided to drive further to the town of Mexican Hat (thus named after a nearby rock, that does indeed look like a sombrero). The first great surprise there was a nice, full San Juan river, the first one we had seen in days, as most riverbeds run dry The next surprise was a very nice restaurant next to the river, where it turned out that Mexican Hat was outside the Navajo Nation, judging by the displayed bottles of beer and wine.

After a satisfying lunch (with Navajo fry bread again), we decided to take the plunge and drive the 1.5 hours to Four Corners Monument. Kind of crazy, but we did not want to be back at Monument Valley until sunset. We did not regret this decision, even if Four Corners is a tourist trap.
The road we chose took us through stunning landscapes. The first was one that I had read about in one of the very helpful photographing the Southwest books: the Valley of the Gods. This consists of several different monoliths, like Monument Valley.

Then we arrived in the town of Bluff, which is built in the middle of an amazing oasis. The last few miles we entered a very barren area in Colorado and then suddenly, tourbuses and many tourists appear seemingly out of nowhere and we had hit upon Four Corners.

We paid the entrance fee and stood in line to take a picture of the spot where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah meet. It is pretty cool to stand in 4 states at once, the kids really enjoyed that idea.

We got back to Monument Valley just in time for a ton of beautiful sunset pictures. Dinner was again at the hotel, this time some very dry trout. For culinary delights, one should not travel to the desert Southwest!

Tuesday, July 1st, 2003

McDonald´s did well for breakfast again and our first stop of the day was the Navajo National Monument. Worth a stop on the way, though hiking to the ruins would take way too long for us. But the Betatakin ruin was well visible from the overlook, where you could see how ladders and everything have been preserved, by looking through one of the provided magnifiers.

At the visitors center is a small museum with found artifacts and people are demonstrating Navajo crafts, and outside, there is an example of the Navajo dwelling, the Hogan, that you can enter. Very interesting.

Around midday, at exactly the time we wanted to be there, as the lightrays in the canyon would be at their best, we arrived at Antelope Canyon. This spot is not as well known as many others in the area, but I think it should be. The colors of the sandstone together with the rays of sun shining through made for magical sights.

We had hoped to have lunch in the Wahweap lodge near Lake Powell, but little did we know it was located deep into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (our National Parks pass definitely came in handy!). When we arrived there, lunch was over, so we had pizza at the nearby pizzeria instead.

In order to take the shortest route to Bryce Canyon, it looked like we should take a dirt road called Cottonwood Road. When we found that road, it at first looked so daunting, that Rick bypassed it, thinking that could not possibly be it.

But the regular road would be so much longer, we backtracked and took it anyway. We did not regret it! The road took us through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and again landscape after amazing landscape unfolded in front of us.

Almost at the end when we would meet up with the paved road again, we visited Grosvenor Arch, a yellow sandstone natural arch. With the stark blue sky behind it, it was quite beautiful.

A few miles further, the photography book recommended Kodachrome State Park, because of its unusual cigar shaped stone formations. We got there just in time to catch the last sunlight on the rocks. In order to enter the park there is an unusual honor system of paying the $5 fee. You are supposed to fill out an envelope, deposit your money in it and then display the receipt in your windshield.

Besides a few campers, the park was completely empty. We walked a small trail to see some rocks closer up. It was well worth the deviation!

Later than usual (due to all the stops), we arrived at the Ruby´s Inn, our hotel for the next 2 nights. This is a fake Western town with lots of shops, a hotel and some restaurant just a mile from the entrance to Bryce Canyon. It is somewhat kitsch, but we all enjoyed it, especially the huge store!

We got 2 adjoining rooms with lake view, which was nice, since we all could have our own beds. We ate dinner at the restaurant, where we were serenaded by a true cowboy and the kids and Rick took a dip in the indoor pool. I took pictures of the lake and moon by night.

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2003

We ate the breakfast buffet at the Inn, before heading out for our hike in Bryce Canyon. We planned to do the Queen´s Garden trail, as it was written up as the least strenuous. We took cold bottles of water and put on our hats and marveled at the downright fairy tale like landscapes we got to see!

When we arrived at the bottom of the canyon, Kai and I were still so interested in seeing more, that we decided to not just go back up the Queen´s Garden trail, but to add .6 of a mile to our hike by going on to the Navajo Loop trail.

For a while we walked along the canyon bottom and then started our climb back up. If I had known in advance, I would have reversed our course, as the Navajo loop is decidedly steeper to climb out of than the Queen´s Garden.

For anyone still planning on taking this hike, I would strongly advise starting down on the Navajo trail and coming back up at Queen´s Garden. The views in the canyon are stunning!

Rick was waiting for us at the top and we walked back to the car. We had a very nice lunch at the Bryce Canyon Lodge, which is a nice wooden building and has good food (and here again we were served by exchanged students from Eastern Europe). I asked for some information there and the guy told me the Rainbow point and Natural Bridge stops were the most worthwhile. The latter also because there was a clearly visible peregrine falcon nest. Then he proceeded to ask me if I was from New York. I was highly surprised and of course said NO. Ok, he says, from New Jersey then? I was torn between feeling flattered that he did not immediately have my accent pegged as foreign and feeling ambivalent about the area he would have me be from (no offense to New York/New Jersey folks), because I do not think that is the prettiest accent in this country.

Off to Rainbow Point we went, indeed a great view and quite high up. Natural Bridge was also very worthwhile, the orange stone of the bridge contrasts beautifully against the green trees. Although Kai found the peregrine falcon nest somewhere on top of a rock, it was empty. That was a disappointment.

The girls and Rick really wanted to have a rest in the pool for the afternoon, but Kai and I had not fulfilled our need to explore this beautiful nature yet. I had read in one of the my travel books (Photographing the Southwest, a wonderful, wonderful book with many good tips), that just outside Bryce Canyon, off route 12, a slight hike would take you to a mossy cave and a waterfall. That appealed to Kai and me, so Rick dropped us off at the little parking lot at the head of the trail with the promise to come pick us up again in 2 hours.

Meanwhile, it was about 3pm and the sky was stark blue, so blue, that it looks black in some of my pictures (I used a polarizing filter). Immediately we came by the creek that produced the waterfall, though the waterfall was about a half a mile up. We decided to first go and see the mossy cave, which, according to the sign, has icicles hanging down from the top until June. That was gone now, but the water dripping down was still freezing and Kai enjoyed standing under it for a little. Besides that, the mossy cave was not all that interesting, to me at least.

On we went to find the waterfall. It turned out to be a sizable one, very unusual in this land plagued by drought. Many families were playing in the water and I was a little disappointed, as I had hoped to find something relatively undiscovered.

Kai and I climbed to above the fall and I gave him the ok to sit in the creek and get himself wet. He built dams and played with sticks, while I just relaxed on a stone with my feet in the stream. The view was of a Hoodoo formation like the ones in Bryce Canyon. I could have spent much longer sitting there in that creek, taking in the view!

Much too soon, we needed to go back to meet up with Rick and the girls. Kai begged me to be allowed to go to the waterfall and even tried to go under it (in the meantime, all the tourists were gone, so he had the fall to himself). It was too strong to stand underneath, but Kai still exclaimed very happily that this was the best day of the vacation for him.

After putting on some dry clothes, we went to dinner again at the restaurant in Ruby´s Inn. We got the same waitress as the previous night, who had swallowed a nice pill, as she had been rather unfriendly the night before, but now greeted us like long lost friends. The cowboy on the other hand did not seem to remember us and tried to sell his CD of country music again, even though I had told him nicely the night before, that that is not my style of music.

We had purposely gone to an early dinner, so we could go back into Bryce Canyon NP for sunset. And indeed, that yielded some amazing views and pictures. I came across a group of Dutch tourists, who were planning on doing the same hike as Kai and I had done earlier in the day. I hope they got out of the canyon in time for dark, as I think these hikes are much more strenuous than they seem and I certainly would not want to do them in the dark!

Back at Ruby´s Inn we spent some time in the huge souvenir store, but we were quite tired from spending the whole day in the outdoors and were planning to get up early for our drive to Las Vegas, so we went to sleep early.

Thursday, July 3rd

We got up early, early, though we were still an hour ahead of Las Vegas, so it did not seem that early (7am). After checking out, we got a quick breakfast to go from the Canyon Diner at Ruby´s Inn.

Our aim was to arrive at Zion National Park so we would have time to take the shuttle bus and make a couple of stops and then go to Las Vegas to arrive in the late afternoon.

It all worked like a charm. The road from Bryce Canyon to Zion was very pretty, somewhat alpine looking. Initially, you drive through the Red Canyon, aptly named for its dark red stone. I noticed there was a long bike path along the road and we were thinking that if we ever returned (surely we will!), we would rent bikes and see the Red Canyon that way.

We stopped for a quick picture at the Visitor’s Center and then drove on. The road to Zion follows the Virgin River, which has created beautiful oases. As we turned onto the road to Zion about 2 hours later, the vistas became more and more stunning. The difference between Zion and Bryce is, that you drive along the bottom of the canyon, so the cliffs are towering above you.

At the entrance of the park, I wanted to photograph a lone pine, that was described again in my Photographing the Southwest book. Unfortunately, there were no pull offs on the side of the road, so I had to forego that thought. A bit later the famous Checkerboard Mesa loomed large in front of us and after first being somewhat disappointed, as so much had been made of it, it did impress us when we were right under it.

In the park, we had to go through a long stone tunnel, very dark and seemingly endless. Only one way traffic was allowed, though we did not really understand why, as there was a 2 lane road through it. Probably in order to get to an emergency if needed.

Once through the tunnel, after a few hairpin turns, we got to the museum where we could pick up the shuttle to take us to the different stops. We had meanwhile decided we wanted to see water, so we were going to hike (which was a four letter word in Saskia´s vocabulary by this point, so we needed to tread lightly and coax her to accompany us) to Weeping Rock, which has a beautiful, green hanging garden. It is about a half mile up. Unfortunately no flowers were blooming, but I can see that being amazing in spring!
At the bottom of the trail, you could go down the steps to the river and Kai and I of course did that. There were 3 different colors dragonflies there and the blue kind was nice enough to pose for me. There must also be numerous frogs at Zion, as we saw tadpoles in all pools and the river.

Back on the shuttle, which then took us to the Zion Lodge, where the Emerald Pools trail started. Here again we heard a lot of Dutch.

The lower pool was about a mile roundtrip and the others further away. So, considering Saskia´s reluctance to walk, we chose the lower one. Nature was beautiful, but I am sure it is much more amazing when there isn´t a drought. The waterfalls were a little bit of a trickle and the pool was more like a puddle and to call it Emerald needed some fantasy as well.

While the kids and Rick rested, I climbed up further and before I knew it, I had climbed to the middle pool via a very interesting path. When I walk through nature like that, I lose track of time and when I got back down, I was informed that they had gotten worried as I had been gone quite a while.

Lunch was then had at the Zion Lodge, where we were this time served by a Polish girl. All the lodges (all run by the Xanterra corporation) served excellent food. We especially liked the nachos here, as they were made from ground corn, soft on the inside, crispy on the outside. Definitely recommended.

After the shuttle dropped us back off at the museum, we started out to our final stop of the vacation: the Luxor in Las Vegas. We were all quite looking forward to staying at this resort and it definitely did not disappoint.

The drive to Las Vegas was relatively boring, after all the stunning landscapes we had seen. It is dry and brown desert there. At one point I looked at the car thermometer and it showed 110 degrees. That is the hottest I had ever experienced!

We drove into town around 4pm, but lost some time, as Rick wanted to approach from the Mandalay Bay side, as he wanted to see the Welcome to Las Vegas sign used in so many movies. We found the sign, but Rick felt it was in walking distance from the Luxor (I did not!), so we would get back to it later.

Check in at the Luxor was a piece of cake (unlike the next day, when the lines were huge!) and we got a room in the pyramid with view of the pool. A nice and big room, nicely decorated in Egyptian style, on the 18th floor.

The kids (and Rick too, if he is honest ;)) had been asking to go to the Blue Man Group show ever since the beginning of the vacation. Since the next day would be 4th of July, we decided to see if that night´s 7pm performance had seats available. Amazingly, it did.

So we rushed off to dinner at the wonderful Japanese restaurant at the Luxor, Hamada and then to the theatre for the show.

As always we were somewhat worried about Saskia, who does not like loud noises and darkness. But we need not have been, she was enjoying herself tremendously! Clapping along, laughing, I have seldom seen her like a show that much! And it is a very entertaining production, definitely recommended!

Back in the room, we waited till Saskia fell asleep and then Katja babysat, while Rick and I played in the casino. This is another thing we like about the Luxor: the minimum bet at the tables is $5. For us, who are not high stakes gamblers, this is great, as of course the gambling money that we allot ourselves goes a lot further that way.

Friday, July 4th

We allowed ourselves to sleep in for a change. Nowhere to drive this time or to worry about the heat of the day.

When all were awake, we had a leisurely breakfast at the Pyramid Café (more because the waiter was slow, than because we were so at leisure). Then, while Rick and the kids went swimming, I bought a day pass to the Spa, to use the fitness center (state of the art), whirlpool and sauna. I love that in Las Vegas hotels, it is so relaxing to use those after a workout!

At noon, I met up with the rest and we decided to get lunch at the Excalibur next door. We first stopped at the Merlin store there, where the kids remembered getting mood rings the last time we were in Vegas. This time they also found some magic tricks they coveted.

The Sherwood Cafe, which we had chosen for lunch because tables were readily available, turned out to have the sloooooooowest service we have experienced in a while! And no apologies for the delays, instead a surly waiter and a manager who did not lower herself to talk to her clients. A definite never return for us.

When lunch was finally over, we walked to the Mandalay Bay in search for the elusive Las Vegas Welcome sign. As I had seen before, the sign was too far of a walk in the 105+ heat, even if dry it was scorching!

Instead, we entered the Mandalay Bay and noticed they had a shark reef, so we decided that would be a nice diversion. After a long walk through another huge resort, we came to an equally huge line. You guessed it: to enter the Shark Reef.

Having one of the most extensive aquariums in the country nearby made us decide not to lose time standing in line and we bagged the Reef, much to Kai´s chagrin.

Back at the Luxor, where we arrived by tram from the Mandalay Bay, we visited the replica of King Tut´s tomb. Katja and Kai were very interested in this and listened to the provided tape.

We decided to while away the rest of the afternoon at the pool, which was wonderful! It consists of 3 separate pools, one of which has waterfalls coming down in it. That is the one we chose, as I was having trouble with my neck and the hard water coming down on it felt great.

After a relaxing dip and drink at the pool it was time to get ready for dinner, which we had reserved in the Sacred Sea restaurant at the Luxor. What a wonderful restaurant! Very relaxing atmosphere, somewhat upscale, but child friendly, all 3 children could easily find a dish they liked. The waiter was very attentive and we had a delicious dinner.

Earlier in the day, we had inquired about fireworks for the 4th of July and we were told that there would be two displays, one at the Paris hotel at 8:30pm and one at the Stratosphere at 9pm. So, we staked out a good spot to view the Paris ones, since the kids were tired and that was the closest to our hotel.

Thousands of others were congregating around us, so we figured we were in the right spot. 8:30 came and no fireworks. So we figured, maybe they were delayed (it was scorching hot still and we all were very thirsty from even standing 15 minutes in that heat!). 8:45, nothing, 9pm still nothing...
The kids were starting to whine and I have to admit I was longing to get into a cool place with a cold drink myself. Then we saw smoke from fireworks far in the distance and decided it was not going to happen anymore. Disappointed, thirsty and hot, we made our way back to the Luxor (though I had to stop and take some pictures first, while the others went ahead, I am never too thirsty for that!).

Once inside, I just about ran to the nearest bar and got myself an ice cold Heineken! I rarely drink beer, but when you are really thirsty there is nothing better!

Up in the room, we ended up watching the fireworks at home in DC. Saskia especially was crying because she so much wanted to see real ones. Rick told them that he would buy some and do a little show for us on Sunday. That appeased everyone.

When the youngest two slept, Rick and I once again snuck downstairs to play at the tables. I played Let It Ride, which Rick finds boring, so he went off to play Blackjack. Usually, we switch off, where one plays and one watches, but this was fun too as it allowed us to play the game we preferred. I did well, at least played even, but Rick was not so lucky and lost almost all his allotment for the night.

After playing a few slots, since we had just read a book that supposedly had the winning strategy for playing slots (it did not work for us, unfortunately), we called it a night.

Saturday, July 5th

The alarm went off at 7:30 on our last day. Our flight was not until 2pm, so we had some time to spend at the hotel. We decided on the buffet breakfast this time. This buffet must at times be quite crowded, as they had the kind of line-up lines you see at theme parks. How people can like buffets so much is beyond me, but then I sometimes see plates piled up so high, my appetite dwindles away just at the sight of all that food.

This buffet was run of the mill. It had some nice seafood, like herring and salmon (I know, some people would not dream of eating it for breakfast), but nothing luxurious about it otherwise.

Since I never have much of an appetite in the morning, I soon left the table to get a final workout/whirlpool/sauna in at the Spa. Then off to the airport it was.

On the way we stopped to finally take that much coveted picture of the Welcome Las Vegas sign! Rick was happy.

We returned a very, very dirty and dusty Ford Excursion to Hertz, it had been a trustworthy and comfortable car. We were very happy to have asked for the upgrade and to have found it available, an Expedition would have been too small.

Check in and going through security went smoothly and we still had a lot of time at the gate, so I decided to use some of my spare cash on the slots there. I played some videopoker and after 3 hands or so I suddenly hit 4 aces! Cash! I won 160 quarters, the largest win I have ever had on a slot machine (not that I play that much). Now this strategy book did pay off, it said not to give up on a machine after a big win, as it may be ready to give out more. And it did, though not nearly as much. In the end I went home with a $46 win, after subtracting the money I had used to win it. Fun!

The next surprise happened just before boarding. We were booked on a connection through Chicago, but I knew that flight was overbooked. Suddenly, Rick got called to the podium, so I was worried they might tell him we had to standby (we had 2 mileage tickets).

But no, they offered him not only the non-stop to Washington Dulles, but also first class! That flight would leave about the same time, but obviously arrive much earlier. Rick, seeing his chance, even tried to get the whole family first class, but there were not enough seats for that, so the rest of the family would get seated in the bulkhead right behind first class.

Of course we grabbed the opportunity with both hands and then Rick determined I should be the one in the first class seat, the sweetheart! I loved it, though the food was dismal, I can not believe anyone would pay full fare for first class anymore. Not that it is just the food, but really, for those few hours, it is not worth it.

This was a great end to a most wonderful and exciting vacation.

Our trip to National Parks and Las Vegas

07/01/2003 - 08/01/2003 /

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