Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Sixteenth Day, A Tour Underway

I briefly mentioned in yesterday's post that Caesar's Palace should come with a map. The hotel is confusing enough when you don't have anywhere important to be. But when you're running late to meet your 6am tour bus departure for the Grand Canyon, the last thing you need is to be lost in the never-ending corridors of a behemoth casino. And yet, that's exactly what happened to us at the start of Day 2.

When the alarm sounded at 4.15am that day, I think we all pretended it wasn't happening. But then we swung into action and got ready for an exciting day trip to the West Rim of the (literally) awesome Grand Canyon. This was a first for me too, so I was particularly excited. First time to Arizona; first time to the Grand Canyon. Bring it!

The elevator doors opened onto the Casino Floor and I was first struck by the acrid stench of cigarette smoke. When you live in New York, you become accustomed to a range of crazy smells, but fortunately cigarette smoke is not something I need to contend with indoors anymore. So in Vegas, that people were slumped at slot machines and chain-smoking at 5.45am on a Wednesday came as quite a rude (and smelly) shock; though perhaps it really shouldn't have.

We didn't have time to dwell on this though because we had a tour bus to meet at 6am, underneath the Planet Hollywood globe around the corner from our Hotel. An easy enough meeting point to find, you would think. But then you need to remember a few salient points: a) I am geographically-challenged at the best of times; b) we were all in a new and confusing place; and c) each one of us was substantially decaffeinated that day. We were seriously set up to lose.

After a bum steer from a "helpful" security guard, we ended up almost running through the splendor of the casino's Forum Shops before FINALLY emerging onto the Strip with no clear view of the Planet Hollywood globe that we needed to find. My watch said three minutes to six. Taking a wild guess, I turned right and broke out into a little jog up the hill. Did I think that higher ground would help me find the meeting point? Nope, I was just desperate at this point - for a comfy bus seat, for coffee, for not missing our chance to see the dusty plains of Arizona. As luck would have it, at the top of the hill I not only spotted the PH globe but also our tour bus - revving its engine and ready to go. At two minutes past six, we piled into our seats and set off. We were back on schedule.

Once we got off the Strip, Vegas turned into a very quiet town in the pre-dawn light. Our tour guide obviously didn't want to start yapping at us too early - so many of us were still asleep - so we all just gazed out the windows for a while and watched the world go by. Before long, we left Las Vegas behind and drove into small-town Nevada, headed for Arizona. The landscape changed and the roadside ceased to be about casinos and car dealerships, instead becoming covered in spiky and gnarly joshua trees and the anticipation of seeing a bighorn sheep, the state animal of Nevada. We didn't seen any of those though - boo to that!

The primary advantage of leaving Las Vegas at the ungodly hour of 6am is that your bus is the first - and usually only - one in the parking lot of all the tourist attractions on your visit schedule. You don't have to battle hordes of other visitors in gift shops, or jockey for positions to capture the perfect photograph. You have space, you have peace and you have quiet. It became clear to us quite quickly that getting up and out at the crack of dawn was the best thing we could have done that day. And the weather in Arizona was working for us too. Cool in the pre-dawn, but warming up to a bright and sunny day - perfect for some time in the great outdoors.

Our first stop after a quick roadside breakfast (provided by the tour) was the majestic Eagle Point, home of the Grand Canyon Skywalk. This area, indeed the whole Grand Canyon National Park, is home to the Hualapai and because you're on their tribal lands, there are some restrictions to photos you can take. But there are representatives of the Hualapai Nation on-site to either take photos of you, or give you advice on what you're looking at over the huge expanse of mountains and valleys before you. We didn't go on the Skywalk, not because we're overly squeamish about heights or anything - it's just that we didn't like the idea of paying $100USD for photos of ourselves out there. You can't take your own photos, you see. The Hualapai take them and then charge you for them in the gift shop - it all seemed a bit steep and besides, our photos turned out OK after all. We did take the opportunity of browsing the amphitheatre, Native American housing, and gift shop instead though.

By now it was almost time for lunch so we piled back on the bus and continued through the Hualapai lands to the icky-named but beautifully scenic Guano Point. If you like, you can click here to view a gorgeous 360-degree photo of the spot and I think you'll agree that despite it's name, Guano Point is very impressive indeed. And the best advantage of the place is that there are no guard rails or security measures of any kind there. One false move and you plummet all the way to the bottom of the Canyon. But for uninterrupted photos of the amazing expanse, you cannot beat it. And our lunch was a very tasty meal of roast chicken and vegetables, and our table couldn't have come with a better view.

On the way back to Vegas the bus slowed down so we could take photos of Hoover Dam, but I'm not sure whether the pictures will turn out because we were still motoring along pretty fast. A great feat of human engineering to be sure but after the gorgeous nature we had been seeing all day, the Dam looked a bit ugly from where I was sitting. And as the neon madness of Vegas came into view over the horizon at about 5pm, we all had to steel ourselves to re-enter society.

Having seen the Forum Shops of Caesar's Palace in the early morning, it was quite a shock to be back there again and fighting the crowds for a good spot to watch the Fall of Atlantis show, ride curved escalators (true!) or find excellent espresso. So it was little wonder that we rounded out our long day by dashing across the street to hide out at Bally's casino, in a small Thai restaurant that offered delicious food and cocktails.

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