THANK YOU VERY MUCH

As Good as the First Time

Saturday

5:30am Time to wake up, hardly three hours after eventually getting to sleep. It was seriously difficult to get ourselves motivated. We were still in a sleepy daze when we checked in. Thankfully it was surprisingly straightforward.

Before going "airside" we waited for Hannah and Tim to have their final puff of smoke before being imprisoned in a non-smoking environment for an unbearable 14 hours. Once topped up on went the nicotine patches to keep the withdrawal symptoms at bay.

As we went through the security checks Rory's food was causing some interest. In the wake of the latest scare about terrorist threats using liquid explosives the rules of what you can or can't take has been changing almost on a daily basis. Today the tub of Sudafed nappy rash cream was a no-go, and a large bottle of diluted apple juice was over the 200ml limit. We were allowed to take through baby food but only after Tim was forced to swallow a sample of each jar of blended delicacies such as vegetable lasagne and apple with custard. Euugh!

After a much needed proper cooked breakfast at EstEstEst we found an adventure play area to keep Rory occupied. He was the only boy amongst half a dozen little girls. Queue charm offensive.

It also occupied Julie for an hour or so as we just sat there watching him having a great time. We could have sat there all day he was just so entertaining!

Then our gate number appeared.

Up until then Julie hadn't been showing signs of worry but walking down the corridors for the long walk to gate 19 was cranking up the anxiety; time for a diazepam or two.

When we got there was quite a long queue caused by having go through the passport/boarding card check before we got to sit down in the waiting lounge. Julie and I went to the toilet whilst Hannah, Tim and Rory stayed in the queue. By the time we returned they had already cleared the security desk and were sitting down the other side of the glass divide.

Whilst we continued queuing a message over the PA system said "Would Miss Owen return to the Sports Bar to collect her unattended bag, please, failure to do so will result in it being destroyed?" We both looked at Hannah. The glass wall made it impossible to communicate with her but she seemed totally unconcerned; so we thought nothing more of it. It mustn't have been hers.

Ten minutes later as Julie and I were clearing the security desk we saw a bothered Hannah coming towards us saying "I've lost my handbag"!

"Oh, so it was you. They've found it at the Sports Bar" I said.

"How am I going to get it now?" Hannah wondered.

"You'll have to forget about it"

"But they'll blow it up"

Then Julie waded in with the classic line "I don't give a shit if they blow up your bag, we're here now"!

At all this commotion the staff came over to ask what the matter was. We explained our situation and within no time they had organised someone to fetch the bag over from the Sports Bar. I had a vision of them bringing this smoking remnant of what was once Hannah's handbag. Fortunately it arrived intact and the episode was closed.

We still had half an hour before boarding and Rory was getting quite restless. I took him to see the plane which distracted him for a few minutes but before long he began to gripe again.

We seemed to be the only people with a baby so were concerned about pissing everyone off. I spoke aloud to suggest my embarrassment by saying "They're all hoping they haven't got the seat next to us. It would be the start of a bad luck streak for Vegas"!

A couple sitting next to us looked up nodding yet laughing nervously.

We could heard actual sighs of relief as passengers realised that they were in seats numbered 50-75 and we were not. Then rows 35-50 were called. It was like a cruel game of baby roulette. The nodding couple were still sitting down, looking even more nervous. I don't know what the odds were against it happening but it turned out not only were they in our group of seat numbers but yes, you guessed it, they were allocated the seats immediately behind us. How incredible?! Surely the odds were something like 64 million to one? Well, the bet on the roulette wheel was back on!

We taxied onto the tarmac with quite a content Rory. We had quite a long wait and the tension was building gradually. Rory could sense it. He was pinned down in a tightly tied lap belt and was threatening to get a little agitated. The engines roared, he tried to wrestle free, we were airborne, and Julie was very composed. What was this? Is this the breakthrough for her fear of flying? She was so distracted by trying to placate Rory that she had totally forgotten about her own anxiety. He'll have to come with us every time we fly!

We had a ten hour flight ahead of us so thankfully Julie was going to be preoccupied with a lot of Rory juggling.

He turned out to be a star; very well behaved. He still demanded attention but as long as he got it he played, he chuckled, he pointed, he got tired and we had to take him for a stroll. He charmed everyone he met, and then he found the staircase up to the first class level. He was so determined to get to the top.

A whole ten minutes was spent allowing him to scale the first five steps before bringing him back down to step one for the ascent to begin again. Then out of nowhere he was distracted by the exit door and he was onto the next adventure.

Don't touch the handle! 

What else occupied him for a while were brightly coloured kids programmes on the small personal screen that appeared from beneath our seats.

They weren't on the back of the seats in front as normal because we were sitting in the sky cot seats which ,whilst Rory was 30 days too old to be allowed a cot, it at least afforded us such amazing leg room.

There was even enough space for him to sit on the floor and play with a few toys. He was incredibly well behaved.

The monitors were also a great source of entertainment for everyone. If we could have had the luxury of ninety uninterrupted minutes we probably would have chosen to watch one of the nine films on offer but Rory juggling was very consuming. We could however play, in short bursts, the many games available.

Tim was honing his gambling skills with Blackjack, Hannah was practicing her military tactics by playing Battleships, and Julie sharpened her intellect with Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

I mostly watched the flight's progress over the world map, and after a few hours I got really excited as we were flying over the tip of Greenland. I looked out of the window to see icebergs and glaciers. I was absolutely thrilled.

The direction we were flying meant that it was permanent daylight outside. This often allowed us great views of the land below.

We flew over the ocean like Hudson Bay; then over the patchwork fields of the Midwest. Before long the terrain changed as we saw the beginning of the Rockies. The map pointed out somewhere called Big Baldy Mountain!?

We then flew over Salt Lake City (which I missed because I was on Rory duty). Then the greenery changed into more rugged and drier land similar to what I imagined the Grand Canyon to be like. We weren't far at all now.

Ping. The seat belt light came on so Rory had to be restrained with the lap belt on Hannah's knee. This was terrible timing because his nappy was desperately in need of changing. We could smell his sogginess and the more he wriggled the more Hannah noticed a warm dampness seeping through.

We tried to entertain him with some sock puppetry the best we could. We thought the more he remained still the less the leakage but we were fighting loosing battle. Hannah just had to grin and bare it.

After a sensationally calm flight Julie's outer serenity was beginning to crack and she reached out for the pharmaceutical solution. It was far too late for it to have any effect. Within a few minutes we could see the tarmac of McCarren airport getting closer and closer and the diazepam had still not reached Julie's blood stream. We touched down with the smoothest of landings, much to her relief.

As we got off, waved by a steward in the full Elvis regalia, Julie was raving about the whole Virgin service and saying "I tell you something, that's the way to do it. Next time we come to the States we're flying Virgin."

With Virgin their service is always as good as the first time.

Coming up next was the dreaded American immigration but to be honest we were dealt with very efficiently. Courtesy of a niggling Rory, both Hannah and Tim were taken from the queue and fast tracked straight through. Unfortunately Grandparents weren't given the same privileges!

We didn't have long to wait but it was enough because just as our turn came to step up to the US Homeland Security Border Defence Guard it seemed that Julie's last gasp diazepam finally kicked in. He instructed her to place her index finger of her right hand onto the fingerprint scanner which totally confused her as her middle finger touched the glass. She quickly corrected herself but then didn't hold it in place long enough for a clear image. He huffed, and asked her to replace her index finger. By which time she'd already placed her left index finger onto the scanner. The guard's eyebrows raised and another huff released as he repeated his request. "Your right index finger ma'am."

I was worried that they would ask her to extend her arms outwards, close her eyes, and bring both index fingers together onto her nose! This she would have failed miserably and we would have been sent to the back of the queue. "Sorry but you're not getting in until you can stand on one leg for thirty seconds." Luckily she eventually got the hang of the fingerprinting and they begrudgingly waved us through.

As always the greatest ordeal was collecting our luggage from the baggage reclaim. With his soggy nappy replaced a fresh Rory was back on form and he toddled his way in and out of everyone, smiling and chuckling. He was building up quite a fan club! It was such a long wait but when we finally collected everyone's luggage we still had one final obstacle to negotiate; the "anything to declare" area. We nervously shuffled through like a pack of dead-on-our-feet zombies. For the briefest of moments we thought we were all going to be stopped and searched as one of the security guards pointed at Tim and called over to a colleague. We didn't catch what he said, so it was with huge relief he repeated himself and we heard him say "Hey man, look at that Scooby Doo bag"!

We stepped outside to glorious sunshine and, as always when I finally reach my destination, a little wave of joy washed over me. I'm sure we all felt the same, although Hannah and Tim were gladder of the wave of nicotine that hit them as they took the first opportunity to light up.

Our next task was to find our way to the hotel. The queue at the taxi rank was horrendously long and there were no taxis in sight.

Added to that it was mid-afternoon and the sun was beating down. So I walked ahead to the shuttle bus/limo area and arranged to get onto the only bus waiting at the rank.

It probably wasn't any quicker than staying in the taxi queue but at least we got to sit down in the shade until the mini bus filled up. Once every seat was taken, which took half an hour to fill, we were off.

At least the airport was very near the south end of the strip.

We had already been treated to a tantalising sneak preview of the Excalibur and the Luxor from across the runway. (The black pyramid rising up in the middle of the Nevada desert was such a surreal sight.)

However this luckily meant that our hotel was the first port of call, not the last.

We were driven to what we later discovered was effectively Excalibur's back-door, known as the South Rotunda.

Stepping inside for the first time was extremely disorientating. It seemed incredibly dark but it was just my old eyes taking some time readjusting to the light.

Finding the hotel reception was quite a challenge even after we regained our sight. We were lost in a maze of slot machines. We passed a few gambling tables, but most of the casino floor was just overcrowded with rows upon rows of slots, offering jackpots ranging from a few dollars to thousands and thousands.

We were eventually spotted wandering aimlessly, dragging our suitcases wearily behind us like we were ploughing a forlorn furrow.

A chirpy member of staff, who was of the "employee of the month" calibre, was kind enough to stop and ask "Hi, are you looking for the registration desks?" I must admit to having to bite my tongue from returning with "Actually no, we're looking for a troop of tumbling dwarves." (What did it bloody look like?) I refrained. I was over tired and a touch irritable but he didn't deserve my sarcasm and anyway I have heard told that whilst not grasping irony Americans are fully versed with the lowest form of wit.

We were checked-in efficiently enough although I was a little disappointed when madam sour-face presented me with a bill for $140 to "hire" a cot, (or a crib as they called it) so that Rory could sleep securely. They didn't mention that in the brochure.

With the finishing line within reach and the promise of soft bed ahead we made our way towards our rooms. We had hardly taken a dozen steps before we were confronted by a super friendly 'smile the size of the grand canyon' member of staff. "Hi guys, have you just arrived?" I toyed with sarcasm again but I politely nodded.

"Let me get you some free gifts, follow me." We were quite caught up in her excitement and followed her to another desk. Cool!

"How would you guys like free tickets to the Tournament of the Kings show?" I was genuinely disappointed in having to turn her down because I had already booked and paid for us to watch the show tomorrow.

"No problem sir, we can offer tickets to the Shark Reef over at the Mandalay." I then began to show interest.

"All we ask of you is to attend a presentation about the new Tahiti Village Resort." The cheeky bastards were trying to sell some time share in a not yet built resort further south on the strip. How dare they prey on disorientated guests who were so obviously straight off the plane? So I politely told them to shove it. We walked away a little deflated in that we weren't actually going to receive something for nothing. I should have known better.

We made our way to our rooms on the 22nd floor of Tower II. When we arrived we found that whilst they were adjoining, as in next to each other, they weren't joining, as in having a connecting door. Julie and I were secretly glad. "Oh well, never mind" was all we could say. The rooms themselves were alright, but nothing special. They were plenty large enough with two double beds and quite a large shower room but they looked a little tired and the décor was certainly in need of modernising. Then again, the bed sheets were clean and the toilet roll was soft. What more do you need?

Despite being exhausted we didn't collapse onto our clean beds. Instead we returned to the casino floor and gravitated towards the open-24-hours-a-day Sherwood Forest café. Hannah & Tim hadn't eaten anything on the flight over so by now they were ready to murder a large Mexican. Fortunately they had shrimp fajitas on the menu for Hannah and Tim tucked into a tasty burger. Julie and I abstained. We were saving ourselves for Excalibur's Italian restaurant, Regale. Rory also seemed to be saving himself. Either that or he really disliked the Cheese Omelette we were trying to shove down him.

Sufficiently stuffed they returned to their room as Julie and I got changed for our romantic Italian dinner.

Whilst standing naked by the window I noticed that the view from our room wasn't especially great.

Just the hotel's parking lot and then outwards across the sprawling suburbs of Las Vegas to the mountains beyond. At least the distant sunset gave it a certain quality.

How great must it be to have a strip view? (Hopefully I wasn't providing some voyeur a strip view of a different kind!).

We could just catch a glimpse of some off-strip action to the right of us. The Orleans on Tropicana stood out, as did the red and blue of Rio on Flamingo, but it wasn't the same as say looking across the street at New York New York or the MGM Grand.

Anyway, view or no view, it's great to see Julie not batting an eyelid anymore at these dizzying heights. Although when the windows slid open bad habits die hard. She was concerned that Rory could slip through a gap no larger than 5 centimetres wide.

He would have to have transformed himself into an envelope to post himself through that gap but stranger things have happened, I suppose.

Julie and I returned down to the Casino level and walked past the green baize tables; casting an eye over what was going on, without looking as if we were interested. "Maybe we'll have a go on the roulette wheel later" said Julie.

Being complete novices at gambling we probably felt a little intimidated by them. We were much more at home with the slot machines. They all had comfortable seats for you spend hours at a time in front of them, and were cleverly designed to hold your drinks and food as to limit the time spent away from them. I'm surprised that they didn't have some toilet facilities in situ, a pipe you could piss in, or the comfy seats could be converted into commodes at a flick of a switch.

It was peculiar to see some punters literally connected to their slot machine by an umbilical cord, feeding their gambling crave. They were physically attached by a curly cord clipped to their clothing and on the other end a card inserted into the slot machine. I guess it was some sort of payment card which could be credited or debited as they won or lost but it looked a little sad.

We walked around and came across one called "Ying Yang". We always say that Julie's the ying to my yang so we felt that the omens were good, and we put in $1.

Despite randomly the pressing the buttons in utter ignorance we did walk away with a voucher for $5.50. It did have the potential to win a $10,000 jackpot so it was quite a buzz playing.

We redeemed our meagre winnings after eventually finding a cash machine that worked. We took our loot up to the restaurant floor where there were plenty of eateries at our disposal.

Julie wasn't at all hungry but I had my mind set on the Italian since arriving. Fortunately the Regale restaurant wasn't too busy so we were seated immediately.

We ordered a caprese salad to share, described as being made with "Buffalo-style" mozzarella cheese. When it arrived I couldn't help but be disappointed because it was the rubbery imitation mozzarella. All fine for cooking with but just not good enough to hold its own on the plate. "This is as authentic buffalo mozzarella as the Excalibur is a real medieval castle!" I said, laughing at my own joke.

My main dish wasn't any better. It was just plain spaghetti with oil and garlic. Cooked right this can be delicious in its simplicity but this was ruined by the taste of burnt garlic. Even the wine fell short of what we expected. Perhaps Julie's choice of Excalibur's Californian Brut, misleadingly described as a Champagne was destined to be a let down. When it arrived it was as much in the "style" of champagne as fizzy grape juice would be considered.

We left Regale and strolled around the first floor where we came across what they hilariously called an English-style pub. It was as English as Frogs Legs! Its saving grace was the friendly barman and the reasonably priced drinks. We enjoyed an hour or two sitting by the bar until we realised that the time was now 5:30am back in the UK. We'd been awake for a full 24 hours. In fact over the last seventy seven hours we'd only slept for nine! It was time for bed.

Sunday >>> ©Copyright Colin Owen 2006

©Copyright 2000-2012 Colin Owen