Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber.
Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet.
Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little.
I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.
Was watching a rerun of one of my favorite travel programs yesterday, TOP TRAVEL.
The show is a production of the South African company Tswelopele, and was produced for only a few series before ending its run. But it's a bit of a guilty pleasure watching ultra-beautiful people Jeannie D and Janez as they traveled the world in search of luxury and adventure.
This particular rerun involved the charming little Alaskan town of Skagway, Alaska. The episode brought back memories of our own jaunt to this part of the world and recalled a moment in which I was sitting at one of the town's little cafes and had just remarked to my wife how much the town resembles a film studio back lot.
Within seconds a large Holland America bus pulled up directly in front of the cafe and Los Angeles news anchor Chuck Henry and crew jumped out to film a segment for a travel show he was doing at the time. Hollywood had followed us up to Skagway.
The news crew never did figure out why our first reaction was to literally "laugh out loud".
We traveled to Skagway on our own rather than the usual route: on a cruise ship.This enabled me to get the below shot of the main thoroughfare, State Street,. It depicts the town near sunset after all of the cruise tourists have returned to their vessels for dinner while the shopkeepers lock their doors and head home.
I have been visiting and enjoying Las Vegas for three decades now, as I mentioned in the previous column in which we named The Best Martini in Las Vegas, as well as the Best Place to Sit & Sip. So it's always a delight when I find something new to occupy my time.
A few years back the MGM Grand hotel featured a large enclosure with lions -- the company "mascot" dating back to the early film days before the hotel company was spun off. It was a rather spectacular complex with waterfalls and large rocky areas for the lions (and handlers) to scramble and play. Through the center and under this ran a plexiglass tunnel so that visitors could quite literally see the lions from all angles. It was quite the exhibit and attracted tens of thousands of people a month to the MGM complex.
Unfortunately, making the rather dubious decision the hotel would be better served with yet another nightclub, the exhibit was closed and removed, leaving the lions off the payroll. (Disclaimer: I own a negligible number of shares in MGM. Just sayin'.)
What was an unknown to much of the public was the fate of these beautiful beasts, and their handlers.
For several years now I have known of the existence of the Lion Habitat Ranch, a complex at the most southern end of Paradise Valley (the valley Las Vegas inhabits) in Henderson. But until a few weeks ago, and despite repeated suggestions by my wife, we had never made the time nor had the opportunity to visit.
A serious error on our part, and a serious error for anyone who considers themselves an animal lover and particularly having a fondness for the great cats.
Founded by Keith Evans, the ranch was founded in 1989, and began supplying lions to the MGM under a contract which ended in 2012. Since that time the ranch has supported itself through fundraising, admissions and sales of merchandise.
The Habitat is a pretty basic affair. Obviously they use the money to care for the animals rather than build fancy cages or a more modern zoological park. The cages are large and basic, with (thick) chain link being all that separates them from their handlers and the public. The handlers and volunteers are present to answer any questions and want visitors about standing too close to the cage when of the males turns his back (The males are territorial and spray with some frequency. If you do not move quickly enough you may be marked as his property, and it's a long way to a shower.)
(The general advice is when you see an employee move, move with them.)
The lions are clearly well cared for, and cared about. The Habitat protects 46 lions, a handful of birds of varying species and one giraffe, Ozzie, the painting giraffe. (Apparently Ozzie is the only one of the animals required to pay his own way, which he does with a gentle and artistic flair.)
This is a much more up-close and personal experience than simply viewing the cats at a zoo enclosure. It's very much interactive and enjoyable for the visitor, and the cats are happy and healthy. Given the number of males present one thing you will likely experience here and not elsewhere is the hug-huffing and territorial roaring of the males. It becomes a chorus of four or five of them, all sounding off simultaneously. You likely won't get a chance to hear this sort of thing at the local zoo, and it's an impressive moment (this video gives you a taste).
While visiting a zoological facility might not be the first thing you think of in Las Vegas, The Lion Habitat is an excellent option for those afternoons when you're looking to escape the casino and perhaps see something else around town. And if you're a local and haven't visited, get over there immediately. Its a true Las Vegas treasure and needs your support.
The ranch is located a mile or so off Interstate 15, not too far from the M Resort.
The color version of this shot, cropped for size, served as the cover for singer/songwriter Brian Stoner's 2012 album Lap of Luxury.
Shot in Hollywood behind a nightclub, I've always liked the B&W version of this for a sense of the bare basics omitting any kind of comfort. Obviously used by the staff for smoke breaks, this...to me...tells a story.
Among my very favorite wines are reds from the Tuscan region of Montepulciano.
The town is perched on a hilltop, dating to Roman times. It has been a commercial and culinary center for centuries, and is justifiably famous worldwide for its wines.
The Contucci winery tasting room sits just adjacent to the town's main square, amidst the history and grandeur of buildings which are hundreds of years old and can be traced back as far as the 13th century. The wine isn't aged quite that long.
If you're a wine lover, Montepulciano is a name you should certainly have in your database.
The desert affords the loner a true getaway, a true escape from the workaday world. If your cellphone doesn't work, you have to just sit back and accept it. Railing unhappily against a lack of dial tone does little more than echo off the granite walls, or dissipate amongst the desert sage.
There is a quiet serenity there. A lack of sound, even wind through the brush at times. How often are we in a wide open area with virtual silence as a companion. Not often, and not often enough.
L.A.'s iconic City Hall tower, once the tallest building in Los Angeles.
Completed in 1928, the structure is well-known to the film and television viewing public, having been used for multiple tv show and movie sets (famously getting blown to pieces in the 1953 George Pal version of WAR OF THE WORLDS).
Although eclipsed by steadily taller and more imposing structures since 1968, City Hall stands aside the rest of downtown, still imposing and beautiful.
"Let life be an adventure. Live your life to the fullest, unfettered by fear of the ghosts and goblins of what might occur. Calamity and death happens as well to those who hide from life as to those who squeeze every drop of zest from it" - Jonathan Lockwood Huie
With the possible exception of Manhattan, there is no city we know in this world with a closer relationship with the Martini. From the Rat Pack origins of Vegas "hipness" through the turbulent 'sixties and trendy 'seventies, Las Vegas has always been at the forefront of the Jet Set's and Hollywood Elite's image. In many ways the Martini is a fundamental part of the image of the city, and in fact plays a major role in its legendary nightlife.
I've been visiting Las Vegas regularly since my early twenties. I can recall the days -- most of them the "last" days -- of The Sands, The Silverbird, The Dunes, The Hacienda and the original Aladdin. I remember when the MGM Grand occupied what we now call Bally's, and a place called The Marina formed what is now the "front" of the current MGM Grand. I have a history with the place, and have watched it grow from the first wave of casinos to today's modern leviathans which have turned sections of The Strip into a man-made canyon of flashing lights, brilliant colors and a much broader range of activities than were enjoyed by our predecessors.
But through it all The Martini reigned supreme as the bar and lounge icon of the city.
For the last few days I've been posting shots of rinks taken from a variety of the lounges, bars and restaurants at the major hotels, ranging from The Mandalay Bay on the south end, up through the SLS which now occupies what used to be The Sahara. I've sipped martinis at the vast majority of them, and in most it's at multiple venues. And for purely arbitrary reasons I have excluded the Rio and The Palms, though both feature terrific places to sit and sip, as well as competent versions of a Martini.
Finalists included excellent drinks served up by The Tropicana, Paris, Cosmopolitan, Planet Hollywood, The Venetian and Palazzo, Wynn, Mandalay Bay and others. The research was conducted over the last year so as not to severely disable your hardworking reporter.
And, for random reasons, I only including vodka or gin martinis.
None of the flavored or fancy drinks allowed.
All this noted, this year's prize for
THE BEST MARTINI ON THE LAS VEGAS STRIP: MESA GRILL, CAESARS PALACE
Bobby Flay's restaurant served up a delightfully cool and smooth martini with speed and a gentle touch. Served properly, with the drink brought to the table in a small shaker and poured gently into the glass, with a light bit of vermouth and exactly %% olives.
Having had martinis at Flay's CAFE AMERICAIN and (the now defunct) MESA Grill in New York, I had a feeling this would go well, and it did.
Now, while MESA served up the best drink, it's a restaurant. The city was designed for people-watching and music listening. So, for our second award
THE BEST PLACE TO SIT AND SIP ON THE LAS VEGAS STRIP: PETROSSIAN, AT THE BELLAGIO
The "outside" lounge at the Petrossian sits just opposite the Bellagio's main desk, which affords it a spectacular view of the massive Chilhuly Glass ceiling adorning the lobby. A piano sits in the center of the carpeted patio, and the pianist plays a well-done selection of classical music, jazz standards, and gentle riffs on more popular music. The service is prompt but not intrusive, and guests are invited to simply sit and enjoy their drinks. Yes, it's a little pricey, but heck, it's the Bellagio.
Congratulations to both winners, and a strong endorsement by The Thumbnail Traveler may certainly be implied.