Notes from Vegas & the Berkshires – May 2002

You know you’ve been away too long when you have to go to the grocery store just to figure out what you are supposed to buy at the grocery store.

I’m back at Home Base now after having been mostly on holiday for the past 2 months. Here are a few notes from my domestic travels. A Link to International Notes is below.

Las Vegas

My most recent journey was to LA and Vegas for some family occasions. Vegas has become a Disneyland for Adults. I last visited here 7 years ago for my brother’s bachelor party. There are lots of good shows there, not just dancing girls. My brother saw Danny Gans and really loved it. I saw Siegfried and Roy (and the lions and tigers, etc.). They get $105 a ticket for this stuff but it’s a great spectacle. Next evening we saw singer Clint Holmes and enjoyed that very much too. The only problem in Vegas is that the taxi lines everywhere are long and it’s hot outside during summer (the one at the airport was :20); at least in Singapore airport, the taxi line is inside the air-conditioned terminal. The trick here is that they learned from Disney — they make the line go back and forth in a big roped-off area so that you keep moving all the time, even though the line is 20 minutes long. Nobody minds it as long as the line never stops moving. The casinos have become very tight with complimentaries and, to some extent, too tight. It’s now a land where public corporations, instead of people in business, run things and it’s become somewhat impersonal and they don’t really seem to care about the customer as much as they used to. The Venetian Hotel has a really neat mall that has the appearance of Venice with a grand canal running through it and a realistic-looking sky above with clouds that appear to move. I’ve never seen a mall like it. The rooms there are all suites with no corners cut and very good value at under $250 a night. The Bellagio Hotel has a beautiful indoor conservatory with flowers that is very grand. There is nothing in the world that compares to the extravagance supported by hordes of gamblers, and I have seen the Burj-al-Arab Hotel in Dubai which is quite extravagant but still not as crazy as Vegas. Still, in Vegas it’s all fake; at the European casino in Monaco, everything on the walls and ceilings is real.

There are lots of free shows around – the dancing waters in front of the Bellagio, the erupting volcano at the Mirage and the Pirate show at Treasure Island. You can just walk up and down the “Strip” of hotels and watch the entertainment. At the Venetian there are two museums with impressive exhibits in participation with the Guggenheim and the Hermitage museums — famous European art and Motorcycles of this century. Nothing here is cheap but you do generally get good value. No need to ever step foot in a casino, but at least in the casino you have the chance to get the last laugh — my dad was angry over the price the restaurant charged us for the “dinner special” but later I had a good roll at the craps table so I told him that I won back my fish! They have an extensive network of escalators and overpasses that help make the trips outside between the hotels not so bad. Some hotels have monorails running between them. But Vegas would benefit by having a more extensive monorail system linking the hotels along the Strip and the airport which is only about 2-3 miles away.

The Wheatleigh Hotel in Lenox, Mass. & the Berkshires

Now I know why the French are so Frenchy and irritable. The reason is that they are constipated. I spent the weekend at an American resort called the Wheatleigh, a 19 room Italian villa with a renown French restaurant and international staff. Dinner is a 7 course affair but there is no green salad. Take it from someone whose late grandmother sent me care packages of prunes at summer camp – if you don’t eat roughage, you don’t go. Anyway, I mentioned this to the food and beverage manager and voila – next evening at dinner a plate of lettuce magically inserted itself into the affair. The chef there is very good; even things I detest such as beets tasted good. But I prefer the Italians who eat to the French who seem more to just taste things. And the Italians certainly know their salads.

The Berkshires are about 2.5 hours drive from New York City; it is a very pretty drive up there and the area itself is more sophisticated and pleasant than the Catskills. You could spend a very full day seeing museums such as the Norman Rockefeller (20th century American art), the Clark (several centuries of classic Euopean and American art), the Mass Moca (modern art in a very large exhibition space which makes it more interesting than normal), and the Shaker Village (working farm to demonstrate the Shaker utopian community of the 18th and 19th centuries). The museums are very good here and worth the drive. The Clark in particular houses many treasures moved here from New York to avoid nuclear attack and their restorations of very old works are particularly vivid. Everything in the Mass Moca is on loan so the exhibition changes every year.

The Wheatleigh is nice and secluded (several miles from anywhere) but overpriced for the property and what you get (next to nothing beyond the room which is nothing much), and there are better values elsewhere. You cannot walk out of there spending less than $2,000 over a 3 day weekend with food and lodging. Other choices are the Blantyre in Lenox for luxury and the Wainwright Inn (more a bed and breakfast but very close to center of town in Great Barrington). I stayed at the Wainwright a few years ago and it was quite good at one-third the price and a better place to be stuck for a Saturday. No matter how much Americans think Europe and Asia is a ripoff, they should travel a bit in the 5-star category in the US to see just how ridiculously priced our own hotels are. For the price of a fairly standard room at the Wheatleigh, you could get a much nicer junior suite on the lake at Villa D’Este in Como which itself is extraordinarily expensive or the Imperial Suite at the Grand Hotel in Abano; food and beverage in Europe is also cheaper — you can get a full all-you-can-eat meal at a 5-star resort in Abano with French service for half the price of a dinner at the Wheatleigh. I spoke with at least 4 other rooms in the hotel (a quarter of the guests) who travel quite a bit and can compare and we all agreed on this.

Go to notes and photos on European Travel this month: Zurich, Monaco, (Italy: Abano, Milano, Sermione, Como), Dublin.

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