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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.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


The Open road. 

Just the phrase conjures up images of long stretches of highway. A black and yellow line running up through mountains, across the desert or down the coastline. No one else around. The pavement to yourself.

Although it may seem politically incorrect in this age of $4 per gallon gasoline (I hear the Europeans out there giggling at our still relatively low-priced inconvenience), the lure of getting into your car and heading off to somewhere at a moment's notice is a liberating one. And nowhere is that more thoroughly expressed than it is in a road trip. Actually, make that a capitalized one. Road Trip. Crank up The Allman Brothers' "Jessica", fill up the tank, shove the kids into the back seat and throw away the cellphone -- it's time for some asphault!

Near the Sea to Sky Highway in British Columbia
I have vivid recollections of the family rising early in the morning, packing a Thermos of coffee for my father, and climbing into the family car on our way to visit family in some far off place, or perhaps just getting out of the city for a picnic in the mountains. Of course, being from a military family, the mountains could be anything from the Shenandoahs to the San Gabriels. But as I have learned much later in life it was the trip itself that provided so much of the pleasure -- but being your typically anxious and active young boy I found being locked in the cabin of the car, usually in the backseat with my sister(s), was more tortuous than pleasurable. It wasn't until I had grown old enough for the states of Virginia and California to entrust me with my own little piece of plastic that I discovered "getting away".

Road trips -- as opposed to airline trips or cruises -- offer a number of subtle advantages. First, no long lines to embark. Usually the car is sitting in the garage or along the front curb. Luggage is handled by a friendly family member (or yourself) , so it probably isn't getting quite the toss-around that it does elsewhere. On a road trip you can stop as frequently or infrequently as you like. You can change your mind at the last minute. And, perhaps most importantly, you can watch the landscape drift by at a leisurely pace. Not unlike a train, but with more flexibility at the interchanges.

Circumnavigating Lake Tahoe along the California/Nevada border
We in the US and Canada are gifted by a dramatic menu of drives, ranging from a few hours indulgence to weeklong excursions. Personally, I have been fortunate enough to have crossed the country, sea to sea, a whopping total of six times. (Though in the interests of full disclosure I will admit to driving it only twice. I'm not the only person in my family who likes to take the wheel.) There are, of course, perhaps a hundred or more regional drives which I've managed to take.

Among the very best, and most accessible, are Highway 34 as it winds through the Rocky Mountain National Park. From lush meadows teaming with bison, to the tops of peaks and frosty lakes this drive, just a few hours from Denver, is one of the most scenic and spectacular in the nation. Your sense of scale will get a workout as you go from one pristine vista to the next. Take your time and stop along the way. At one particular layover, we watched squirrels scurry around for a good fifteen minutes. It sounds boring, but believe me, they're characters!

Highway One through the Florida Keys
If you're near the Florida Keys no one needs to tell you the pleasure of Highway 1 as it leaps from Key to Key (island to island for us mainlanders) across the beautiful Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico (depending on which map you're reading…). Though most people focus on the bookends of Key West and Key Largo, there are many, many scenic and enjoyable stops along the way in places like Islamorada, Duck and Marathon Keys. For added pleasure, watch Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in KEY LARGO before you hit the road.

The Pacific Northwest has literally thousands of options, but my favorite has got to be Highway 504, the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway which winds from Interstate 5 some fifty miles inland to the Johnston Ridge Observatory -- where you will be treated to a stunning view of Mount St. Helens. Plan on spending an hour or so at the visitor's center, but the drive itself is part of the spectacle. Let your imagination drift back to 1980 and picture the black volcanic cloud, then looking down the slopes from the highway to the valley floor far below you can almost see the rush of ash-gray water as it cascades down the riverline, consuming everything in its path. The Highway 504 offramp a couple hour trip south of Seattle and about half that from Portland.

Route 66 through the Mojave
For something a bit more accessible to the Eastern Seaboard you have the wonderful explains of the Shenandoah Valley, as well as the beautiful Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park, which winds through the mountains from Front Royal at the north all the way down to just shy of Highway 64 in the south. Along the way, if you're a daytripper, there are a couple of exits which will get you back home in time for dinner. Despite the fact you're only a couple of hours from Richmond, Washington, DC and Virginia Beach, the park is an entirely different, entirely natural world. Virginia also boasts the Colonial Parkway, which runs through some lovely country near Colonial Williamsburg. If you're heading that way for a vacation at Williamsburg or Busch Gardens, plan a couple of hours for this drive. It should not be missed.

Flipping sides to the other side of the country you have the stunning drive along Interstate 15 from San Bernardino up the Cajon Pass and across the upper Mojave Desert to Las Vegas. Although a crowded and at times frustrating drive, the scenery is stark and stunning. For a terrific side-drive from the LA-Vegas dash, spend some time heading across a portion of Route 66. Take I-40 east from Barstow to Ludlow and follow Rte 66 for the twenty or so miles east to Kelbaker Road. From there, transit north recrossing Rte 40 all the way up to Baker). If you're not pressed for time, this little side-trip givens you some utterly wonderful sights such as 400 year old cinder cones as well as completely virgin desert vistas. 

Or, if you're an Angeleno with a bit less time, you might grab the Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu north to Ventura, or South from Long Beach to Laguna. Eastcoasters can find similar drives out over Cape Cod or -- in the South try Emerald Drive along the Emerald Isle along North Carolina's shore. All of them are relatively easy to reach and excellent beach rides.

The Open Road in North Carolina
Driving anywhere in Hawaii is, of course, its own reward, but on the island of Maui is the justifiably famous Road to Hana. Drive it just to drive it. Though somewhat challenging -- it has some 620 curves and 60 bridges each way -- it can be one of the most beautiful you will ever take. Waterfalls crash down just yards from the highway, and the cliffs to the north drop hundreds of feet in places down to the blue Pacific. The town of Hana is a peaceful, quiet village at the end -- and if you press beyond it you can reach the not so very Sacred but still quite lovely "Seven Sacred Pools". Highly recommended. If you're in a non-four wheel drive it's time to turn back -- the road beyond the pools is quite rough and violates car rental agreements. Unless you're a hardy soul who enjoys bumpy road, just enjoy the Road to Hana in reverse.

Chain of Craters Road, Big Island
And lastly, though certainly not exhaustively, there's the drive through the Louisiana Plantation Country along the Great River Road (actually a series of roads which generally follow the Mississippi River). An hour or so west of New Orleans, along the path there are many plantations now set up for visitors to discuss and present the history of the antebellum south. Our favorite visit was to Oak Alley Plantation for a tour of the house and gardens. Plan for a full day, and certainly take your own car. The area still has scars from Hurricane Katrina, and the flood this year will certainly not be much help -- but the area needs the help and delivers on the experience.

There are thousands of other trips, both daytrip and longer, which deserve your attention. In this day of longer and longer lines at the airport, and more crowding once you actually get INTO the jet -- or the serenity of a cruise with 5000 of your best friends -- it's time to sit back, pack up a couple of CDs 

and hit the open road.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Tale of Two Casinos -- Twice Over

Tale Number 1 

Hospitality: "Treatment, reception or disposition"  (A nod of appreciation to the folks at Merriam-Webster)

They call it the Hospitality Industry. Hotels, restaurants, and other kinds of service provided to people -- the paying customers -- who are being hosted by these companies.

In the vast majority of cases, the idea that simple things count is at the fundamental heart of any of these businesses, and ought to directly reflect the degree of commitment the company has in this regard. Few of them survive once that level of courtesy is lost. When a guest is made to feel unwelcome -- or worse, treated as an annoyance -- the entire plan collapses and they are soon out of business. It can be something very minor which, despite the efforts of many others, is the one thing that drives away that customer and encourages them to mention it to others. Word of mouth goes in two directions.

This is a tale of two such companies. Twin behemoths of the Las Vegas Strip, and two of their properties. On one side we have the MGM Grand, owned by MGM Resorts International, an impressive property in both size and facility, but which may be inhospitably drowning in its own size.  On the other is the Paris Las Vegas, a charming though equally sizable competitor which knows well that a smile and friendly wink will go far towards landing repeat business. Paris is owned by MGM's crosstown rival Caesars Entertainment.

As I write this, and as you may have surmised, I am on vacation in Las Vegas, looking at our final day of checkout and the long drive home. The trip has been a momentous one in many ways - most importantly because of the wedding of my brother-in-law to my now sister-out-law, the event which drew us here in the first place.

During the course of the weekend I've had the opportunity to experience the customer service of a large number of businesses in the Vegas area. This being a tourism-driven town one would expect that, of all places, we would be at ground zero for a solid customer service experience, yes? The truth of the matter is not quite so cut and dried.

At the moment, we are firmly ensconced at the Paris Hotel and Casino, an excellent property essentially in the middle of the shifted-south-since the-eighties Strip. It's quite a nice room, though fairly standard for midrange Strip properties, with a few nice amenities. We didn't start here, however.

Our weekend began with a rather brutal encounter with indifference and ineptitude on the part of the MGM Grand check-in procedures. No nicer way to put it. Despite the wide smile and helpfulness of the Front Desk staff, we - upon attempted check-in - descended down a rabbit hole of promises, failures and generally unacceptable procedures that at long last - a full half hour after the "guaranteed" check-in time (itself an hour and a half after the first of three, countem' three, "escalations to management" we were promised by the hotel's customer service staff) - yielded a different room and a ten minute wait in the corridor for security to let us in when our keys would not open the door. (I will note, in all fairness, that the MGM Bell service impressed us with a prompt and courteous delivery of our luggage. That much, at least, scored a ten out of ten.)

None of this would be more than generally annoying had it not been for the four times my wife and I explained that were there to attend a wedding in the MGM chapel at 4:30. Again, bear in mind the guaranteed 3pm checkin. It wasn't until the hotel customer service agent responded to my fourth call - at 3:20 - with some testiness that I reached the breaking point. Far from recognizing that the hotel was actively doing us a disservice, somehow this had morphed into our inconveniencing them.

Flash forward an hour, we are now safely in our room, but feeling distinctly uncharitable towards the MGM. We contact hotels.com, the agency we booked through, and inquire whether or not we could change hotels and receive a refund of our unused nights.

Night and Day. Operator Alex dutifully listened to our issues, thought it was a valid point. Placing me on hold, he contacted the hotel to verify the issues, coming back online a few moments later to let me know they had agreed to the refund. No fuss, no muss, and a general concern with getting the situation corrected. Alex made detailed notes in the hotels.com database, instructed us to recontact them the next morning after we had checked out and they would process the refund.

After hanging up, we again booked a hotel through the hotels.com website, this time the Paris, a property we have wanted to try for some time. Checkin was immediate and smooth. Valet and bell service were prompt with securing the car and delivering our luggage to the room. A completely different customer service experience than we'd had at the Grand. Though a slightly higher cost for what admittedly is a lesser room (standard versus suite), the experience and convenience of a well-run property far outweigh any benefit of the larger room. As opposed to the "inconvenience" and endlessly hollow escalations, we simply received courteous treatment and an efficient operation.

Out of adversity comes opportunity. Had the Grand staff given us an indication they were dealing with us as patrons, our day would have gone far differently. We've stayed at this property repeatedly in the past and never had anything like this happen, so perhaps it was a fluke.

But I would guess it isn't. Even upon checkout, when the desk customer service person noted we were leaving two days early, his response was more an embarrassed silence than any sort of sincere apology. He mumbled his regret, but looked as if he would prefer to talk about virtually any other topic at that point. A desk manager, clearly within earshot of our conversation, actively moved away. This isn't the behavior of a happy or engaged staff. This isn't the hallmark of a world class hotel --it's a churn and burn approach which will cost MGM repeat business. Perhaps their occupancy rate is high enough they simply don't care. But I do. And I'm happy to spend my own money elsewhere, and did. If you're headed for Vegas any time soon, you might do well to avoid the northeast corner of Tropicana and The Strip.

Tale Number 2

The soon to be shuttered Sahara
On a separate but related note, we visited two properties which could not be further apart in both experience and ambiance, the Sahara and the Cosmopolitan. More to the point, one is at the end of its illustrious life, while the other is the just-birthed darling of the Strip.

Due to be shuttered in the next couple of weeks, visiting the Sahara was a sad echo of bygone days. It was opened in 1952 and marked the beginning of an era that would see a dramatic growth in the desert. Within a few years The Stardust, The Riviera, the Tropicana and other storied hotels would join the Sahara. It was the era of the Rat Pack, and the Sahara was among the favorites. Now seemingly alone at the north end of the Strip, the Sahara has fallen on very hard times, and is now slated to close on May 16th. The virtually empty casino and its subdued staff lent the place a funereal air which, given its past, makes for a sad ending to such a storied property. A few stragglers and quiet diehards still wander her casino, every once in a while stopping to play a round or two at a table game, or drop a few bucks in the slot machines. You can feel the end of an historic site, a place where kings of entertainment and money once strode...but its passing is marked neither with a bang nor with a whimper, but with a gasp.

Poolside at the Cosmopolitan
This contrasts greatly with the vibe and vitality of the Strip's newest hotel, the Cosmopolitan, which easily out-glitzes the Palms and all other trendy Vegas sites. The employees are fun, talkative, friendly and enthusiastic. Highly recommended as either an afternoon visit (we played the slots,  little roulette and craps), a quick nosh (the food and service at the Overlook Cafe were excellent), or an extended stay. Glitz, glamor, and -- as their advertising line puts so well -- "just the right amount of wrong".

The Cosmopolitan succeeds where, in my opinion, Aria -- another recently opened hotel and casino -- fails in in scope and scale. Aria feels like a huge, albeit gorgeous, big-city hotel which includes a casino. Very cold and domineering. The Cosmo works hard to enclose you in its womb, breaking up the lines and making you feel like you're in a much more intimate place. Long strands of crystal and glass (and a bit of plastic) give the room warmth, and even the largest parts of the hotel are broken up and made to feel a bit more snug than are the CityCenter buildings. It's a question of Times Square versus the hot new discotheque downtown. Both are high energy, but one overwhelms while the other attracts.

There's a feeling you get when something just clicks, and the Cosmo clicks well, but a bit of a sense of humor. Always a welcome relief when you're out scouting some fun.