After our time in San Francisco we drove inland. And further up into the mountains. We went to Yosemite National Park. The entire park is a little more than 3080 square kilometers, but most guests, including us, only see a small fraction of that. They see the giant Sequoia trees and Yosemite Valley. Our guide at the local tourist office told us that if we only had one day to see the highlights, these two points were the must do’s.
This became our third encounter with the mighty californian redwood trees. And by far the best, I would say. Because here we could really get to see some splendid trees! Enormous as they are, having grown for thousands of years. Just like the first two times that we saw such trees we all went a bit quiet and stared in awe with our noses pointed towards the sky. My mother, who saw such trees for the first time, was also quite impressed.
We moved along towards Yosemite Valley. On the way we made a few stops to shoot some photos of the beautiful scenery. The tourist office had told us that the village would be decorated for Christmas, and that it was supposed to be spectacular. I realize that we arrived just a few days after Christmas, but there were absolutely no signs of any decorations, and absolutely no Christmas spirit whatsoever! All we saw was a bunch of rather modern buildings, built for commercial use, housing an awful supermarket, a souvenir shop and one of the worst cafeterias I have ever seen. We are obviously within the main target group of what you would call “mass tourism” - but I still believe they could, and should, have made a much greater effort of making Yosemite Village just a bit more charming. I guess you have to see it as a place to do some grocery shopping and stocking up for hiking and camping trips. Not as a cozy place to do a stop over for a cop of coffee.
In general though, I would say that Yosemite National Park should be seen, albeit not during the winter season. Personally I was much more impressed by Mount Rainier National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. They were, in my opinion, much more beautiful and spectacular in their own ways. But I have seen thousands of stunning pictures shot in Yosemite National Park. I know for sure that it can be beautiful. It is like comparing bananas with apples. Furthermore, it is certainly also a matter of personal preference!
On our way to Las Vegas we drove through a corner of the Mojave Desert. Long, straight stretches of highway across open spaces, sand and rock. I am always impressed of just how raw and brutal nature can be. Apart from some small, very specialized plants and trees, there is absolutely no life here! A few birds of prey can be seen hovering above, just waiting for their chance to get a bite to eat. Apart from that there is nothing to see. We stopped by a real “trucker-stop” where you can get fuel, stock up and fill yourself with fast food, before moving on. We have seen such places before. They are apprx 10 times bigger than highway stops in Germany. Incredible! There are always a lot of people passing through, 24 hours a day. It is an interesting place to just watch and observe people for a while. The giant Peterbilt and Mack trucks cruising in and out with their mighty trailers. The huge pick-ups that would cost a fortune to register in Denmark because of the danish car-taxation. And all the very different people traveling from A to B. At times it can really be a fun and colourful sight to see!
Las Vegas is always an experience! I have been there once before, without seeing much of it though. I was traveling with work and attending a big conference. During the week that I spent in MGM Grand Hotel I got to leave the complex only twice. The rest of the time was spent inside in air-condition, behind tinted windows with the omnipresent background “music” and the constant rattle from the gaming machines. I couldn’t hear them from my own hotel room or in the conference rooms, but it still pretty well sums up my first visit to Las Vegas. Well, it’s been 11 years now.
This time we had chosen a hotel a few miles from the lights, the noise and the masses. Still on The Strip, but towards one of the ends. The hotel did not even have any gaming machines or background music. It was a completely normal family friendly hotel. Nice and quiet. But with a free shuttle bus, that would bring us to the center of all the fuzz, right up the street, within just 10 minutes.
There are almost 600.000 people living in Las Vegas. But you will find millions of people in the streets at all seasons due to the 40 million tourists that come and go every year. Apart from being the largest casino city in the world, Las Vegas is also a very popular convention destination. Around 5 million annual attendees, spread out on 21.500 different conventions. You have to give them that this is a busy place! And a GIANT money machine! The casinos, just on The Strip, generate an annual revenue of 6,2 billion dollars. If you include the entire Las Vegas area, the number is 10 billion dollars per year. And this is just “gaming revenue”. On top of that comes hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and various other professions. It is absolutely crazy!
A few times we walked up and down The Strip, just to take it all in. Everything is more extreme in Las Vegas than elsewhere on the planet. And then nothing is really too extreme for Las Vegas! The neon signs and giant billboards are much bigger than any other place, and I can only strongly recommend a walk through it all after dark, to get a proper impression.
The big hotels are in fact attractions by themselves. We went to “Bellagio” to see their Christmas exhibition in the lobby. An overflow of floral decorations (polar bears, ice crystals, reindeers etc), electrical model trains, Christmas trees and much more. Tivoli in Copenhagen make this pretty well, but the artists at Bellagio do it just a notch better! Also, they might have a little more in the budget to play with! We also enjoyed the outdoor fountain show, quite an attraction by itself and creatively made! The hotels “The Venetian” and “The Palazzo” which are connected, have an amazing ground floor. It is a small copy of Venice, with a St. Marks Square, canals AND gondolas! You can walk around for hours, even days without thinking about the fact that you are indeed indoors! The small café where we enjoyed some real, italian espresso and a few scoops of ice cream even charged us traditional, obscene european tourist prices without blinking! And they served everything with the usual, southern european arrogance. Oh yes, truly a small piece of Venice!
On New Years Evening my mother had kindly offered to babysit Anton. We couldn’t refuse such an offer! So we started out with the traditional TV address from Her Majesty the Danish Queen Margrethe of Denmark, streamed to our laptop, while we toasted in apple cider. The we all had dinner together, before Alexandra and I said goodnight to Anton and his grandmother, and left with the shuttle bus towards Mandalay Bay, from where we walked the last few hundred meters to participate in all the New Year festivities. The entire central part of The Strip was closed down for traffic. And there were people EVERYWHERE! They say that around 500.000 people more than usual arrive in the days before New Years Evening in order to celebrate in Las Vegas. Together with a great number of those we walked up and down The Strip. It was a bit strange to be walking in the middle of the street, where you will normally see cars and large limousines. We went inside a casino to see what that was like. In the bar desk they had gaming machines installed. All you had to do was to feed it with notes and you could be hanging there for hours, gaming with one hand, while drinking flat tap-beer with the other. We bet an entire 5-dollar note, and played some Blackjack. It went surprisingly well for a while. But then we went down, and as we rapidly approached 0 cents in the bank, I made a comment that maybe the rumours are true that there really are people sitting behind the scenes, controlling everything through the video surveillance system. (There are MANY cameras everywhere!) Then, suddenly everything turned and we started to win again. Strangely! It went on for a while, but then we got somewhat bored, started to play carelessly and lost concentration. Before long we had lost everything. The house always wins! It’s mostly like that in a casino, and you have to keep that in mind all the time when, and if you start betting or gaming. The fast winnings are, in my opinion, a myth. Of course you have the lucky ones that are also quite skilled, but if it really was so easy to get rich fast and easy, I guess we would all be gaming every day for hours. Or?
We went outside on The Strip. It was almost midnight and we were looking forward to see the great fireworks that they were all talking about. It was great, but we have seen greater and more beautiful fireworks even at local summer festivals in Denmark. It only lasted about 8 minutes. Most places in the US private fireworks are prohibited. Even New Years Evening. Hence we did not really get the “New Years feeling” that we know and love from Germany and Denmark. Back home everyone is firing off rockets and small bombs the entire evening. In Las Vegas all we saw was a drunk crowd. In great party mood, by all means. But we still felt that something was missing... After the fireworks the party on The Strip went on. But for us it was enough. We had walked apprx. 3-4 kilometers within just a couple of hours. A few times the crowd was so dense that we had to hold each other tight in order not to get pushed and separated from one another. We went back to the shuttle bus and drove back to our hotel.
We had a different, but still a really nice and fun experience on New Years Evening in Las Vegas. Nothing like we had imagined, but still a great experience that we appreciate. Next year we will be celebrating in a more traditional, european way back home. And with a spectacular firework to enjoy!
If you are not really into colourful billboards and crowds of people at all times during the day, I would still recommend a trip to Las Vegas, and the surrounding area. We went on a couple of smaller trips through the valley to experience a bit of the desert. Red Rock Canyon, just 25 minutes from The Strip is a stunning place, with the most spectacular red rocks. A true paradise for rock-climbers and hikers. Anton is by now an experienced hiker and needless to say he wanted to try some of the more advanced places, that could actually turn into some real danger. He refused to wear his proper hiking boots so after my mother had returned to the car because she did not have the nerve to watch our little adventurer in his red crocks on the edges of the cliffs, we decided to abort the mission for the day. Proper footwear is mandatory in these areas. It is not to be taken lightly. But it was beautiful. Really beautiful!
Another highlight was the trip to the Hoover Dam. Like the Golden Gate Bridge this is a great example of a massive and visionary project that was turned into reality during the depression in the 1930’s. You suddenly feel VERY small when you stand there on the middle of the dam looking all the way down to the bottom. It is a LONG way down! In spite of anxiety when hanging over the edge to take some photos we all thoroughly enjoyed this trip!
Click here for recent pictures!