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September 2007

Las Vegas-Big, Loud, and Still Growing

19

September

Las Vegas is now more than a gambling haven. . .it’s a family destination, with entertainment for all ages.

Nevada is not where one would expect to find one of the top tourist destinations in the world, but Las Vegas has been challenging expectations ever since being established as an entertainment capital in 1946. In just a few years, Vegas went from being a wide spot in the road to the playground for gamblers, Hollywood stars, and tourists from all over the world. Las Vegas legalized gambling in 1931, but it wasn’t until Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel on the day after Christmas in 1946 that the Strip, and modern Las Vegas, was born. In the following years, the smaller, ‘family-run’ hotels and casinos would gradually be replaced by mega-resorts and corporate hotels, and the city that was once based purely on entertainment for adults, began billing itself as a destination for the entire family.

Today, the action has moved from downtown Las Vegas to the Strip. The Strip is actually a four-mile section of Las Vegas Boulevard South, and contains most of the newer mega-hotels that Vegas offers. Many of these hotels are some of the biggest, most expensive properties in the world. Las Vegas is located in the Nevada desert, so the resorts and hotels are open year-round, the sun is always beaming, rain is almost non-existent, and fun is always in season.

Every year the hotels in Vegas get bigger, more lavish, and the entertainment choices more fabulous. On any given night, visitors can chose from old Vegas stand-bys such as Barry Manilow, David Copperfield, and Tony Bennett, to the biggest shows of today like the Blue Man Group, Spamalot, and Penn and Teller, to the more eclectic, like tribute show to Neil Diamond or the Rat Pack. Las Vegas, Nevada is also famous for its championship quality golf courses. Each year, the PGA hosts numerous events and tournaments in and around Vegas, and likewise for tourists, the courses are always in great shape, the sun is always shining, and the bunkers are always raked.

The Strip is home to the largest, most lavish, and luxurious casinos and hotels in the United States. Some of the most famous that tourists will encounter are:

  • Circus Circus: Themed after its name, guests enjoy its daily acrobatic shows, clowns, and other amazing displays. One of the older casinos on the Strip, and a Vegas landmark.
  • Bellagio: When it was built it was the most expensive and largest casino in the world. In addition to thousands of game tables and rooms, the Bellagio has a world-class art museum, and it features the nightly dancing water fountain in front.
  • Ceasars Palace: An ancient Roman-themed affair, Ceasars has waiters working in togas, and is another of the most famous and well-known in Vegas.
  • The Venetian: Set to become the largest hotel-complex in the world when its Palazzo section opens, this Venice-based resort features gondola rides along waterfront shopping, a Guggenheim art museum, and 17 award-winning restaurants.

Although Las Vegas has grown incredibly fast in the sixty-odd years since the city found its calling, the best may be yet to come. A monorail is slowly opening that runs the length of the strip—beginning at the MGM Grand Casino and passes the Convention Center, Las Vegas Hilton, before ending at the Sahara. When fully completed, the monorail will connect from the airport all the way to the Sahara. Plans are also under discussion to build the tallest hotel in the world, as well.


Machu Picchu-Peru’s Incan Wonder

14

September

Real travelers know that there are only a handful of destinations in the world that are absolutely can’t miss, must-see-before-you-die places, and Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes is definitely one of them.

Recently voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the ‘Lost City of the Incas’ sits in the high jungle (2,500 meters above sea level) 50 miles from the colonial city of Cusco. Even through the Spanish conquest and occupation of Peru, the city remained hidden from the outside world for centuries until an American archeologist from Yale University named Hiram Bingham in 1911. In the years following this monumental discovery, the public’s curiosity was aroused to an incredible degree, with National Geographic devoting an entire issue to it. Today, more than 300,000 people visit the site each year, with some choosing to hike the Inca Trail, a portion of the Inca’s extensive road network.

Travelers who visit the area have a wide variety of choices of accommodations, tours, length of stay, and more. One this is certain, though, almost every visitor will start in Cusco, and normally require a day or two to adjust to the altitude.

Cusco is a rapidly growing city, having tripled in population over the last 20 years to its current size of 300,000. It is an impressive city, and was the capital of the Incan Empire before the Spanish conquest. Art lovers and those interested in the history of the region can visit the Pre-Colombian Art Museum and the Museo Inka to browse through the artifacts on display. This artistic culture has remained, and many markets, shops, and street vendors populate the area selling handmade clothes, hats, paintings, and other pieces. The Spanish were many things, but respectful towards native art and architecture they were not. Unfortunately, the conquistadors had an affinity for destroying native buildings and replacing them with their own. Some original walls and structures remain, but for the most part, all the buildings in Cusco are Post-Colombian. They are beautiful, however, and the Plaza de Armas offers visitors the Church of La Compania de Jesus and the Cathedral, two of the best examples.

After acclimatizing oneself to the region’s thin air, travelers will then have some decisions to make as how to visit Machu Picchu. The more adventurous souls may choose to spend a few days hiking the Inca Trail. Guides are available to transport gear up the mountain, and will prepare nightly dinners for hikers. Others may choose the path of least resistance and decide to take the PeruRail train service. PeruRail offers several different lines for travelers to choose from.

  • The Backpacker is the no-frills, bare-bones train for those who just want to get there. ($73 R/T)
  • The Vistadome is the mid-range service, with large panoramic windows so photographers won’t miss a shot. The train is very comfortable, offering snacks and drinks, and is also the quickest. ($113 R/T)
  • Travelers looking for ultra-luxurious means of transportation will no doubt choose the Hiram Bingham. This service offers full meals with wine, guides, transfers, and afternoon tea at the Sanctuary Lodge at Machu Picchu. ($547 R/T)

Once there, visitors will be simply amazed at the beauty, sophistication, and natural wonder that this place offers. The weather on the mountain is temperamental, and can change on a dime. Oftentimes, tourists are disappointed upon first arrival due to clouds blocking some of the better views, only to be treated a few minutes later to them passing and the mountains and the ‘Lost City of the Incas’ being revealed in all its breathtaking splendor.


Alabama-Southern Charm Southern Adventure

14

September

Alabama is a great destination for people interested in getting back to nature, relaxing, and meeting some of the friendliest people in America. Known as “The Heart of Dixie,” Alabama certainly takes southern-ness to heart. From the rolling foothills of the Appalachians in the north, through the plains in the middle of the state, and down to the beaches and bayous along the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama offers hospitality, a laid-back attitude, and enough history, soul, and activities to satisfy any visitor.

The South is proud of its history, and although its past certainly has some checkered moments, modern Alabama has come to grips with the worst parts, while embracing the future at the same time. Certainly no city demonstrates this juxtaposition more than Huntsville. Located an hour and a half north of Birmingham, the Rocket City is home to Alabama’s high tech industry. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is there, along with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and others. The Space and Rocket Center is one of the largest museums in the world dedicated to space travel, and home to Space Camp. Each year kids from all over the world come to learn about humanity’s continuing journey to the stars, operate mock-ups of NASA equipment, and undergo some of the same training that real astronauts do.

For outdoors enthusiasts, Alabama is chock-full of rivers, trails, lakes, parks, and beaches. Canoeing is very popular in the state, and the numerous river and streams offer challenges for all skill levels. The Coosa River in Wetumpka offers seven miles of rapids, calm waters, and gorgeous scenic views as paddlers make their way through the canyons and hills of central Alabama.

Golfers will find few destinations that can offer the passion for the sport as well as the quality of courses that can be found in the Heart of Dixie. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail offers ten public courses spread throughout the state, all of championship quality and affordable prices, and all showcasing the beauty of the state. Many tourists to the state spend days, if not weeks, traveling up and down the state stopping at each spot on the trail and lingering over their putts.

Most people don’t think of Alabama as a beach destination, but the same coastline that millions travel to Florida to enjoy is present in Alabama, if on a much smaller scale. Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and Dauphin Island all provide visitors the chance to dive, ski, swim, or just laze about under the sun. The cuisine is also second to none, featuring fresh fish and shellfish, as well as seasonal fruits and vegetables from one of the best growing regions in the U.S. Mobile showcases its antebellum past with its forts and historic battle sights of the Civil War.

Alabama does things its own way. It could be the heat, but things seem to get done on a different schedule than the rest of the country. They still get done, but never in a hurry, and rarely without a smile and a ‘Thank You’ or ‘You’re Welcome.’ People interested in seeing what the south has to offer will find it all in Alabama.