Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lucky #7 Vegas Extravaganza: The First Night

I started planning my "Lucky #7" Vegas trip in March 2011. I chose September because the previous best Vegas trip I'd ever taken was in September, so I figured September would be perfect for a lucky trip ;)

Originally my lucky #7 trip was only supposed to be two nights long - we booked a two bedroom hospitality suite at the Mirage for Friday and Saturday nights in mid-September 2011. But a few months later when we booked our plane tickets, it turned out that it was far less expensive for most of us to fly out to Vegas on a Thursday. We did the math and knew it would be a big stretch to book the suite for our first night, even if it was available - on top of that, we were all arriving late (between 9 PM and 11 PM) and we figured it would be silly to spend that kind of money for a few hours of sleep.

This led me to use Priceline for the first time and book a room at the Monte Carlo for about $60. I had been hoping for the Mirage, of course, or at least a hotel a bit CLOSER to the Mirage (to make changing hotels on our first full day a bit easier), but what can you do...that's the chance you take when you use Priceline :)

Personally I ran into a few issues when I flew to Vegas on Thursday, September 15 flight from my home airport was delayed so long that I almost missed my flight from Atlanta to Vegas! I literally had to run from one end of the Atlanta airport to the other, but I made it (albeit with only a minute or two to spare) and we landed just before 9 PM west coast time as planned. My friend Chad arrived not 20 minutes later and after picking up his luggage we settled in at the bar to wait for my best friend Jenna and her boyfriend JB!

Waiting in the airport bar!
Finally everyone was there and we were in a cab and on our way to the Monte Carlo! I wish I'd noted our cab driver's name and company because he was great - he didn't try to screw us by taking the tunnel and the highway; in fact he didn't even try to convince me that we should when I told him not to do so. Those cabbies are few and far between in Vegas, let me tell you! (I've literally gotten in arguments with cab drivers before when trying to get to a hotel from the airport)

Jenna and I (post-freshening up of course) outside the Monte Carlo on our first night
We checked into the Monte Carlo and wooow did it take a while. Seriously we waited in line for at least 20 minutes :-/ I never knew so many people arrived in Vegas this late at night! Once we were in our room we quickly freshened up and changed and met a friend of mine to go to Fremont Street. Jenna and Chad had never been down there (and JB had never been to Vegas period!) so I figured...hey, it's a Thursday night, there's a big fight this weekend, there will be stuff going on!

Jenna & JB enjoying a Fremont Street football!
Noooot so much, and wow will I never go to Fremont Street that late at night again! We didn't even get there until about 12:30 and we stayed until at least 3, but it was empty. Half the casinos and most of the stores were closed! We gambled a bit and enjoyed some cheap Fremont Street drinks, but needless to say I really noticed how seedy "downtown" Vegas is and we were more than happy to head back to the Strip ;)

Unfortunately once back at the hotel there was nothing going on! It was a bit late, true, but I've had some of the best Vegas times at the Mirage lobby bar at 3, 4, 5 AM...drinking and talking to random people and whatnot. No such luck at the Monte Carlo, and after a munchie trip to the McDonald's inside the casino (the existence of that was a plus, at least) we made our way back to the room for a 5:30 AM-ish bedtime.

But not before playing a little hallway football with Jenna's now-empty souvenir football cup ;)

Don't worry...days two and three were the true "extravaganza" of this Vegas extravaganza and I'll be back with those stories VERY soon :D

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Surprise! A Video! :)

So in case you didn't know already (and how could you not, if you've actually been following/reading my blog? haha) - I love Vegas. But just as importantly, I love the Mirage Las Vegas.

Now, forgive me for the poor quality of the video that I'm about to share with you. I thought about editing out my voice, the background music, etc...but I think it's more amusing as is ;) This is the type of video that happens when you arrived in Vegas at 10 PM the previous night and immediately started partying, stayed up until 5:30 in the morning, woke up at 10 AM and started drinking by 11:30 AM...and then three hours later checked into your mega-suite for an awesome weekend and decided to take a video of said suite. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cosmos for Critters 2012: We are WOWED.

It's that time of year again - Mardi Gras time, that is - and for us that meant attending the second annual Cosmos for Critters!
Steve & I at Cosmos for Critters, Saturday 2/18/2012
Last year's CfC was a good time, of course, but it was extremely obvious - in a good way! - that they learned a lot with their first event, because this year the entire shebang was just *outstanding*.

Change of venue - this years CfC was held at the Upstate History Museum

For their first year CfC was held at Zen on South Main Street in downtown Greenville. Now, this location had its positives - a lot of open space, and right up or across the street from a few bars if you wanted to keep partying after the event. But Zen is very minimalist (and to be honest felt boring to me), and also their parking is questionable - we had to park in a lot about 1/10 of a mile or so from Zen itself and walk up a train track to get to the building. Not fun in heels. Though the Upstate History Museum seemed to have limited parking (we arrived at about 7:45 and there were maybe 5 spots left in the lot!) and was farther from other downtown options (which would have involved moving the car and paying for parking in one of the lots or garages if we wanted to stay thanks), in general I enjoyed this location much more than Zen. Why?

Lots of fun picture opportunities!

We were able to wander around and actually check out the museum, which in general just meant "more stuff to do" if one didn't feel like browsing the silent auction or dancing :)

Now, my main "complaints" regarding last year's Cosmos for Critters ("complaints" with quotation marks because we had a good time regardless, and it wasn't as if they were unclear about what was and was not included last year) were the bar/drinks and the food. Mainly that the food selection was fairly minimal and that they seemed to run out of it quite fast, and that the drinks were pricey - at least a couple of dollars more than what you'd pay at a bar downtown. The tickets themselves were affordable last year (at $28 each) but in the end we spent so much on drinks that it became a very expensive night out.

This year they fixed that problem, though! For $45 per person ($50 per person after January 15) your ticket included an open bar! Food as well, of course, and I was extremely pleased with the spread this year. Not only were there far more options, but there was more food period. Many of the dishes were a bit spicy - in keeping with the New Orleans/Mardi Gras theme, I'm guessing - but there were plenty of tasty options :)

Main buffet
Cupcake tower
Now, the silent auction had some amazing items both this year and last year, but sadly this year the bids were quite a bit higher than they were last year and we declined to participate :( They also had a little raffle going on, and since the money was all going to local animal rescues we bought a few tickets for that. Didn't win anything, but the prizes were some really nice gift baskets full of pet treats, books, and the like.

All I can say is that we may have had fun last year at Cosmos for Critters - but this year was a thousand times better. Every improvement that they made was a positive one, and if they continue on this path...even if next year's event is in the same place with the open bar and the same food vendors...we will absolutely be first on the list of people to buy tickets for it!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sun Valley Idaho: But what ELSE is there to do?

I have to say, skiing is obviously the reason one would go to Sun Valley in the first place...but that doesn't mean that there isn't anything else to do!

First things first - the "activity" we enjoyed most during our stay was definitely the giant outdoor hot tub. Especially the night that it was snowing while we were in it. They have cocktail service least 8 PM? Forgive me for not remembering, it may have even been later, but how awesome is the idea of a waitress coming to you hot tub-side to take your drink orders, then sipping on said drinks when she returns?

Not to mention it's always fun to dip into a relaxing hot tub after a long day of skiing, period.

The whole area around the pool was always so steamy! ;)
There is also some decent shopping in Sun Valley Village and Ketchum, though to be honest the stores in the Village and many in the town close quite early. Considering people are likely skiing most of the day, one would think that 6 or 7 PM wouldn't give tourists enough shopping time after 4 PM mountain closures! There are some great little kitschy shops in Ketchum - The Country Cousin at 411 E. Sun Valley Road probably has the widest range of souvenirs, especially t-shirts, sweatshirts, shot glasses and just random stuff that you'll never need but at least be amused by. Also, my backpack strap tore while we were on our way to Sun Valley and I needed a new one, so I ran into the Elephant's Perch at 280 N. East Ave in Ketchum and grabbed an awesome Dakine backpack - complete with padded laptop sleeve that terminates before touching the bottom of the bag - on sale for about $45! So if you're in town and need some ski gear, I definitely suggest checking out this store.

Quaint downtown Ketchum
Back at the Sun Valley Lodge and in the adjacent Sun Valley Village, one of our favorite activities was to listen to live jazz/piano music while enjoying drinks in the Duchin Lounge :)

Sort of candid picture of us getting comfy on a couch in the Duchin Lounge
The Duchin even features a couple of good local beers!
We also visited the Inn Lobby Lounge, though to be honest that lounge was downright empty the night we were there. (Of course, it was a Monday...) The Duchin was never empty in the evenings, though on our first night - which was a Saturday - it was pretty crowded. Almost to the point of not being able to find a seat (had there been more than two of us, we wouldn't have been able to do so). But the live music was always great and the prices weren't too bad either, considering it was the only real "bar" at the Sun Valley Lodge!

Unfortunately the Boiler Room in the village wasn't open at all when we were there. I was told that they have comedy shows and live music sometimes but that otherwise it remains closed. Sad :( To be honest it *would* have been nice if there was a bit more of a "happening" nightlife at or near the lodge. The one night we went into Ketchum we visited - as previously mentioned - a more toned-down restaurant ranter than a hopping bar, but even so it we would have had to deal with catching the bus back early or finding and paying for a cab had we wanted to stay out late, which just kind, to put it bluntly ;)

There are plenty of extra activities that we sadly missed - the tubing, for one, which I've read is enjoyable especially for children; and also the ice skating, which was right outside our door at the Lodge, but the one night we thought about maybe doing it/making time for it we ended up going into Ketchum, getting distracted by Sean the bartender at Cornerstone, and returning to the Lodge far too late to go ice skating.

Also, it's worth mentioning that there is a movie theater in Sun Valley Village, and that if you eat dinner at certain restaurants on the property - including but not limited to Gretchen's and Bald Mountain Pizza - you get free tickets! When we were there they were playing two animated kids' movies, at I want to say 6:15 and 8:45, but we drank too much beer at Bald Mountain Pizza the night that we ate there and so never made it to a movie, silly us...haha. There is also a free showing of Sun Valley Serenade at 4:30 PM every day, but of course we didn't make it back early enough from skiing to change and get to the movie theater for this. Still, if you have the time I think it would be really cool to say that you saw Sun Valley Serenade in a movie theater right there near/where it was filmed.

Other than that, we just wandered around the Lodge. We "visited" Suite 206, where Ernest Hemingway wrote most of For Whom the Bell Tolls, though we didn't get to see inside of it, really (we caught a bit of a peek thanks to the fact that there were maids inside cleaning it when we stopped by and the door was propped slightly open). And they keep Sun Valley, Ketchum and Hailey (near the airport) decorated for Christmas all ski season, which meant tons of cool ice sculptures and pretty Christmas lights to see! So I'll leave you with a few shots of those and this one last fact: We had an amazing experience in Sun Valley and if you're a skier - but most especially, a skier who loves nostalgia - this place is a must for your skiing/travel bucket list!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sun Valley Idaho: The Food

One of the things that I was pleasantly surprised about in Sun Valley was how much awesome food we ate. Not that I expected it to be bad at all, but considering the fact that we stuck to fairly affordable places and even ate most of our meals at the Lodge or in Sun Valley Village...well, that just really says something about the quality of what you can get on a budget in this little ski area!

We arrived too late on our first night to need anything to eat, so our culinary adventures (of a sort) started on a Sunday morning. We grabbed a quick, light breakfast and some coffee at Konditerei Coffee in the Village, and I must say that this was the only "just average" experience we had during our time there. The coffee itself was good, but the food was okay at best and honestly a bit overpriced for what you got. I ordered a chocolate croissant, paid for it, and then was told they didn't have any after I waited 10 minutes for it. They offered me a refund or something in exchange; I chose a slightly less expensive muffin but while I certainly wasn't going to ask them to refund the difference that at least should have been offered, in my opinion. Steve had a breakfast burrito that was...well, let's just say we won't go there. I'll just repeat that at least the coffee was good.

After a long morning of skiing we were famished, and a good thing too, because we headed back to the Lodge for their infamous Sunday Brunch in the Lodge Dining Room. This was by far the most expensive meal we ate on our trip...but hey, it was all-you-can-eat! For the brunch buffet itself and two Bloody Mary's, plus tip, we paid about $90 and it was worth every penny.

Their fruits, cold salads and cheese selection were, in a word, amazing.

Live piano player and crepe station

Yum, desserts! (and a random mini quiche at the top, haha)

Looking back into the beautiful and nearly empty dining room (we were leaving just as brunch was ending)
The *only* issue I had with this brunch is that some of the food - namely the coffee cake on the dessert bar and some of the hot foods, like the quiche - had obviously been set out when brunch began at 10 AM and had been sitting there ever since :-/ So not surprisingly, if you want the really fresh stuff, get there first thing rather than going right before close as we did ;)

Because we had such a huge, late lunch we just snacked a bit for dinner on Sunday night, and our next real meal out was Monday morning at Moose Girls [located at 360 East Ave.] in Ketchum. We'd had a few people suggest "The Kneadery" to us, but then we heard from other (more reliable) sources that that particular restaurant isn't as good as it used to be. Moose Girls came highly recommended and I am extremely glad that we left the Lodge a bit early and lugged our ski boots the couple blocks from the bus stop to have breakfast here.

We ordered one of their special Monte Cristo breakfast sandwiches, as well as the Salmon Eggs Benedict, and then we split them so that we both got to taste everything! To be honest I'm not quite sure the salmon on the Eggs Benedict was my cup of tea, but in general everything was delicious, portions were hearty, and the hash browns were amazing as well! They have cappuccinos and the like and will refill your cappuccino cup with regular coffee for free, too, which was a huge plus for us.

Clockwise from top: hash browns, Salmon Eggs Benedict, Breakfast Monte Cristo
Of course we skied all day, which meant two things: we didn't really eat, and we were starving for dinner by 4 PM! We headed over to Bald Mountain Pizza for their opening at 5:30 PM, and wow. Considering the affordable prices and the quality of both the service and the food, this was by far the best meal we had in Sun Valley. And honestly - I'm picky about pizza. Like, really picky. So for me to say that the pizza at this place was good...well, that means something. Trust me.

First, our server Jonathan - who was awesome enough to be memorable (and I mean that in the very best way possible) helped us with our beer selection. He let us taste the red ale they had on tap, which was awesome. We liked it and ordered a pitcher for $20! Not too shabby.

Ninkasi Brewing Company's Believer Double Red Ale
Next Jonathan helped us with our food order. Normally I'm not one to take suggestions because I can usually look at a menu and know what I want, but we decided to listen to him and ended up with the stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer (for Steve - I don't do mushrooms) and two 8" pizzas to share - the Chicken Caesar and the Philly Cheesesteak (a daily special). We also got a giant plate of breadsticks (they just "come with" your meal) that were very tasty. Steve ranted and raved about the mushrooms and finished the entire plate himself; I had some of both pizzas and was beyond pleasantly surprised at how awesome they were, especially the Chicken Caesar.

Chicken Caesar pizza at Bald Mountain Pizza
We even took some cookies to go and our bill was still only about $50...before we left a generous tip for our awesome waiter, of course ;)

After such a big dinner and knowing that we had plans for a big lunch at the Roundhouse on Bald Mountain for our last day, we didn't do much for breakfast but instead arrived at the top of the Roundhouse Gondola just before noon for an early lunch. We ate in the actual restaurant - though I've heard good things about eating in the bar as well - and had another overall great experience.

There was a live accordion player...
We got to dry/warm our ski boots by a roaring fire
And we enjoyed some a bottle of wine with our meal while we rested from a long morning of skiing!
(plus the views were great)
Food-wise we split a grilled apple-prosciutto-manchego (etc.etc.etc.) flatbread and a Croque Monsieur with Pommes Frites...and again, everything was delicious. I wish I could have tried some of the heavier meals on the menu...everything looked so amazing! And dessert would have been great as well, I wager. But faced with the knowledge that we had to ski back down over half of the mountain with our bellies full of food and wine, we took the safe route and stopped with a light lunch and just one bottle of Riesling ;)

Pommes Frites & a Croque Monsieur; a slice of the flatbread on the side
For our last night we once again planned on just snacking. The previous evening we'd visited the Inn Lobby Lounge after eating at Bald Mountain Pizza, having been invited by the bartender and the piano player (whom I met at the bar at River Run Day Lodge earlier that day, of course...haha) - and the bartender mentioned that he also worked in Ketchum at a place called Cornerstone. He wasn't supposed to be working the next night (our last night) but we decided to stop by anyway...and lo and behold he'd had to work anyway! So we enjoyed some great talk with Sean the bartender at Cornerstone on 211 North Main Street in Ketchum...and a few good drinks...and some really delicious mac-n-cheese to tide us over.

Cornerstone Mac-n-Cheese. Don't miss it.
In general Cornerstone was a sort of eclectic mix between local dishes and modern decor. The food was a bit pricey but after tasting the mac-n-cheese, I'm sure anything else on the menu is well worth whatever it costs! And honestly, don't forget to check out the bathrooms. They're insane. You'll find yourself wondering, "How did this bathroom end up in a restaurant in Ketchum, Idaho?" No lie.

Cornerstone bathroom - not the best picture due to dim lighting, but seriously, it was crazy awesome.
This brings me to the end of our culinary adventures in Sun Valley, Idaho, but I do have to say one more thing - if you ever end up in this not under any circumstances eat this:

It's supposed to be candy of some sort, but I'm still not sure what exactly it's supposed to taste like. It's awful. I think it may taste as bad as it looks, and that's bad. Avoid it at all costs. Trust me on that.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sun Valley Idaho: The Skiing

When writing my review of the Sun Valley Lodge, I mentioned that the lodge itself was not actually at the base of either of the mountains that make up Sun Valley resort. I also mentioned that had I known this, I may have stayed in a condo at Ketchum. Because that is one thing that needs to be said up front - there is no lodge/there are no condos right at the base of either Dollar or Bald Mountain.

River Run Day Lodge
Live guitar player at the River Run Day Lodge!
That said, the day lodges at both Bald and Dollar Mountain are beautiful and amazing. The River Run and Seattle Ridge lodges at Bald Mountain are far superior to Carol's Dollar Mountain lodge, but that probably has more to do with the size of Baldy vs. Dollar than anything. The main difference is that to use the lockers/store your things at Dollar you have to go downstairs, which of course is a bit of a pain when you're wearing ski boots ;)

At the top of Dollar, looking back on Baldy
At the base of Dollar

We of course spent most of our three days of skiing at Bald Mountain, finishing off the trip with a couple of hours at the much smaller, much easier Dollar - which is in fact the first mountain that was developed for skiing out of the two.

At the "top" of Baldy!
No one told us before we arrived in Sun Valley that their rating system is at least one step higher than any mountain back east (I'm specifically speaking of Vermont, here). And boy, is that correct! In fact I'm pretty darn sure that Sun Valley's trail ratings are higher than the ones at Jackson Hole (Wyoming) as well. I just wish I had skied more western mountains and could make more comparisons!

On the Roundhouse Gondola

Don't get me wrong, some of the green circles - especially the almost flat, narrow, winding ones, and the ones closer to the base of Baldy - were probably true green circles. But I was shocked at some of the slopes at the top of Baldy that were labeled green circles when, considering their general steepness, they were obviously blue squares! To be completely honest, I'm a good skier but not a brave one, and I didn't ski any black diamonds at all while we were in Sun Valley.
Taking a picture of myself before I hopped off a crappy, icy green circle trail into some glades...that, err, weren't meant for skiing ;)
Dollar Mountain is, as I mentioned, very small - even by eastern skiing standards. The trails are mostly easy, but at the same time they are very fun. The halfpipe and terrain park are great! Far superior to anything I've seen back east - much larger, anyway :) There was a large school group there the afternoon we skied Dollar, but even with all of the children it never felt overly crowded. Apparently - according to a few different people who we talked to - mid January is always pretty dead at Sun Valley. So if you're looking for a great skiing time when it isn't crowded, definitely look into that time of year!

Taking a break part way down the mountain due to a foot cramp on my part. Steve is not amused ;)
Unfortunately, this year was a strange one for snow. The area hadn't received a good snowfall since sometime in early or mid-December, and just our luck it didn't snow again until the night before we had to leave. Thankfully, even though we missed out on that legendary western powder, Sun Valley has more snow guns than any other mountain in the States - 555, to be exact - and because of this there were still plenty of trails open and very few icy spots.

"True" summit of Bald Mountain
 The only other issue that is worth mentioning is the accessibility of Bald Mountain's trails. Now, if you're an advanced - and adventurous - skier, you probably wouldn't have many complaints, but as it stands there are huge areas of the mountain that are a bit of a pain to get to. For instance, if you're staying at the Lodge or just storing your skis at River Run, you have to begin and end your day there, which means that the only way to get to Warm Springs - at least when the snow isn't quite plentiful, as in our case - is to go to the very top of the mountain and ski your way down, then go back to the top to ski back down to River Run.

Seattle Ridge
Also, to get to Seattle Ridge at all - at least when we were there - the only way to do it was to take the Roundhouse Gondola, then ski down a very narrow, boring (yet easy, I suppose) trail and take another lift up to the Seattle Ridge day lodge. And this is a must in my opinion, even with how much "work" it takes to get there, because there are some truly great trails over at Seattle Ridge. We talked to some people who said that at times they would spend their entire day over there, despite it being a fairly small area of the mountain!

Seattle Ridge Day Lodge - Inside
Awesome three-sided fireplace at Seattle Ridge Day Lodge
As for going to the "top" of Baldy, which I mentioned before, the lifts that go to the main area run from Warm Springs and River Run, but to get to the actual summit you have to take a little three-person lift from the Seattle Ridge area. A lift whose chairs don't even have bars. Again though, like going to Seattle Ridge in general, it's worth it - some of the best views are from the summit (of course) and the beautiful Seattle Ridge day lodge.

Seattle Ridge again :)
All in all, I must say that while I wasn't quite as impressed with Sun Valley's skiing as I was with Jackson Hole's, but of course it far surpassed anything we have back east. Would I go again? Maybe. I loved Sun Valley as a whole and we had an amazing time; if you've never been, I absolutely suggest a ski trip out there. But I've got places to go and people to see, so it may be a while before we end up back in Idaho...for skiing, at least ;)