Living High

Mike, Linda, Gail and I have a particular thing we enjoy–those revolving restaurants on top of high towers.  We’ve had some very interesting meals while slowly rotating in Vancouver, Seattle, Montreal, Toronto, Dallas, Louisville (OK, that didn’t really move, they just said it did) and a couple more I don’t remember.  So it was only fitting that last night we tried the Top of the World restaurant here in Las Vegas.

The restaurant, though well reviewed and recommended, sits atop the Stratosphere Casino, an 800 foot monstrosity that has never quite made it here. The tower/casino is well north of the big hotels on the Strip, and seem to be trying to raise tacky to an art form

I drove in, and headed for the valet line, parking behind a half dozen other cars.  Quite some time later, I noticed that there was nothing happening, so I backed out and just pulled my car up in the middle of the walkway and got out. This got the valets attention–he wasn’t pleased, but I gave him my keys and he had little choice but to take the car. Sometimes you just have to be proactive.

The other three had gone ahead, so I was left to my own devices to find the elevator to the restaurant. There are no signs in the casino, no way to find out where to go. You just wander and wander, vainly asking employees who vaguely wave off in the distance towards, perhaps, some entrance.

Circling around the entire place, passing (as management clearly planned) each and every one of the tacky, garish, gaudy stores selling tacky, garish, gaudy crap, I eventually stumbled upon the reception desk for dinner–and was ahead of the rest of my crowd. We joined up, and were led to “security”, where my tiny pocket knife was confiscated “for your safety and mine, sir”. Arrant stupidity is not limited to airports and the TSA.

Finally harmless enough to be allowed to eat, we went up to dinner, which is on the “106th” floor, but of course the building isn’t that tall, it’s just another marketing lie.

Enough of the whining.  How was the food?  Great.

The restaurant itself is beautiful–done in blues and whites, very modern and chic.  Our waiter was swift and competent. The view would be much more spectacular at night, when all of Vegas is lit up, but we had to get back to bridge so we were there in daylight–and the view was still wonderful.

A great bread basket is a good start.  Just look at this beauty:

That's some good baking going on.

That’s some good baking going on.

With bread comes butter, or some facsimile.  We got three concoctions–one with garlic, one with orange, one sort of plain.  Don’t try the orange one.

Making the butter fancy to class up the joint.

Making the butter fancy to class up the joint.

I started with my usual, caprese salad. This one came with incredibly ripe, perfect watermelon to go with the heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, toasted pistachios and a sherry vinaigrette dressing.

Heirloom tomato caprese salad with watermelon.

Heirloom tomato caprese salad with watermelon.

I’m a major connoisseur of caprese salads, and this one ranks with the very best. It’s more than large enough for two to split, but who would want to share something this good?

On to the entrees. I had the Scotch Salmon, with mango and green papaya slaw, pea guacamole and roasted jicama.

A most inventive salmon dish.

A most inventive salmon dish.

The mango green papaya slaw combined two of my favorite fruits, the salmon was perfectly cooked and the roasted jicama was like a healthy french fry dipped in pea guacamole, whatever that might be, but it tasted tangy and bright.

Gail had the smoked rack of lamb–which means I got a couple of chops, and they were, if not fantastic, certainly different. Lamb is rarely smoked, because it’s too delicate a flavor and easily overwhelmed, but I’ll certainly give the kitchen points for creativity. The accompanying ragout was another standout.

We also noticed that the steak knife they gave Gail was more than twice the size of my little pocket knife.  I wonder if anyone in management has ever considered how stupid, bureaucratic, incompetent and unthinking they must be to continue this insulting foolishness about “security”.

Smoked rack of lamb with bean, corn, pancetta and tomato ragout.

Smoked rack of lamb with bean, corn, pancetta and tomato ragout.

It is more than mildly disconcerting to look up from you dinner to see a body flying past the 100th floor windows, but that’s all part of the show here.  Would-be daredevils can get all suited up and hooked into a harness attached to stiff wires, then jump off a platform and “fall” safely to the ground.  If we had more time I would have tried it myself, maybe.

Jumping off an 800 foot tall tower just for the heck of it.

Jumping off an 800 foot tall tower just for the heck of it.

Dinner was very, very good. The Stratosphere makes it as hard and unpleasant as possible to get there, but the meal is worth the trek.  The good news is that once you find you way up, they tell you where the secret elevator is to get out easily, redeem you car and go back to playing bridge.

The Top of the World is pricey, which is pretty standard for revolving tourist traps. But I’ve paid more for less interesting, creative, sparkling food without a view. Just don’t bring a pocketknife, they might think you’re a terrorist, bent on hijacking the tower to Cuba.

Top of the World on Urbanspoon

Success!!!!!!!!!

The magic bits on the director's screen.  We're in the big time, if only the small end of it.

The magic bits on the director’s screen. We’re in the big time, if only the small end of it.

Ok, some success.  A bit of success.  More success than not.

Mike and I, with Frank Lowenthal and Jim O’Neill, struggled and clawed our way to 42nd overall in the Senior Swiss Teams, a two-day nationally rated event.

Of course, 42nd place doesn’t pay very much–we got 8.51 points for two days of hard play–I could do better sitting at home playing Bridge Base, but they don’t pay off in Platinum Points like a national event does.

Yes, we could have played better.  If we were all at the very top of our games and played to the best of our ability, we might have been 37th.

Coming in 42nd is pretty small potatoes to some people, but it’s a big deal to me, and I”m pretty darn proud to share it with you.  Thanks to all my teammates and let’s do it again in Chicago next summer.

 

Wrap it up, bitch, I’m ready to dance

Yep, that what the classic Southern Belle Wendy Sullivan said to me right after the game on Friday.  She works 15 or 16 hours a day for weeks before, during and after a NABC and the first Friday is her only chance to party–and that means dancing with me.  The music had started, Elvis was in the building, and she wanted to shake a leg, so I’d better get a move on, stop looking at scores and beat feet to the dance area.

First I had to get my picture taken with a couple of little old lady players from the area:

Bridge tournaments are all just hard work for me.

Bridge tournaments are all just hard work for me.

 

I ended up right behind the beauty on the left in the conga line, too.

Wendy always arranges a great opening reception for the players, and last night was one of her finest.  Given that we are in the hotel where Elvis spent his time, she retained the services of Greg Miller, an Elvis impersonator of the highest caliber.  His voice was spot on, his costumes, moves, lines, jokes, all were perfectly Elvis.  The night was perfect.

Greg Miller as Elvis Presley

Greg Miller as Elvis Presley

Of course, I can hardly walk today from sore muscles–there just isn’t enough dancing in my life.

The other reason to celebrate Friday night is that Mike and I had two decent sessions and made the cut in the first day of the 3 day Life Master Pairs. The event has gotten much tougher this year since they are also holding an under 5000 event and an under 1500 event, so the field for us has gotten vastly stronger.

All of which came to a point on Saturday, when we had a poor first session and a worse second session. We’ll be playing compact KO’s tomorrow.

A couple of dinner notes:  Friday we went to Piero’s, which is on Convention Center drive, just a few minutes walk from the playing site. It’s an old-fashioned, heavy, dark Italian restaurant with good food, classic service and moderate/reasonable prices. The entrees come with a house salad which is very good, the portions are sufficient even for me and Don Mamula, the atmosphere is straight out of the 50′s.  I liked it.  Pia Zadora does a lounge act there on Friday and Saturday nights that I would love to see, but it’s one show only, at 9, so no chance.

Tonight, Mike and I took the car and drove to McCormick and Schmick, at the end of Paradise Road in Hughes Center. The restaurant is just like all the other M&S establishments, except that you could shoot a cannon through the joint. Six thirty on Saturday night and the place was deserted.  The bar was completely empty.  I don’t understand it, but it means you can get a reservation easily.

I’ve been living it up in the Marriott Las Vegas, next door to Piero’s and about a 9 minute walk from the playing site.  Great room, really a suite, free internet and $90/night.  That will last until Monday morning, when I’m moving over to the Westgate so Gail doesn’t have to brave the heat.  I got us an upgraded room there, which should be much better than the hovel we were in last March.

And that’s the news from Vegas–some good bridge, some bad bridge, good food, lots of heat and great dancing.  Just what you want in a tournament.

The end of the line

For us, at least.  We’re in Lake Louise, the train has gone on.  I presume that all manner of people will continue to wave at the train–we certainly saw many of them on the way here.

People like to wave at the train

People like to wave at the train

We left Kamloops at 6 bloody 15 in the morning.  Not that I’ll ever miss the Hotel 540, but i always believed that early to bed and early to rise and the gals all go out with other guys.

We were seated in the back of the rail car, so the first day we had the second seating at meals.  They switched, and the second day we were first (something  Biblical about that).  Breakfast was just as good as the day before; I had the egg benedict (singular, one egg, one crumpet) which is served with “Montreal meat”, a smoked ham product that isn’t bacon and isn’t anything else you’d recognize.  Not bad, not great.

I had to stick my head in the kitchen and see the tiny space where they managed to put out so many good meals in a short time.

A marvel of efficiency and design--the railroad kitchen

A marvel of efficiency and design–the railroad kitchen

The trip was delightful–we climbed many feet, travelled along 7 different rivers and just enjoyed the scenery.  And enjoyed and enjoyed.  Over 13 hours later we arrived in Lake Louise.  Gail is certain that she has had enough rail travel for her lifetime.

Along the way passed through the spiral tunnels–two places where the train entered a mountain, made a complete circle and emerged facing the same direction but further up the mountain.  It was a brilliant engineering solution to the difficult problem of getting the train up a hill too steep to otherwise climb and descend safely.  Our train was over 2000 feet long, but they tell us that some of the freight trains can be over 10,000 feet or 2 miles, and at times you can see them entering and exiting the spiral tunnels at the the same simultaneously.

We crossed the Continental Divide, which is also the border between British Columbia and Alberta.  From this side, all rivers eventually flow to the Atlantic or Caribbean Oceans.  The mountains here reach up to 12000 feet, with broad flat valleys carved out by glaciers.  It is truly breathtaking.

Sunday, we had a private car tour of the Yoho Valley, which is back where the spiral tunnels are.  First, though, we woke up and looked out the window at the incredible lake, and the morning reflection of the mountain and glacier.

Lake Louise in the morning.

Lake Louise in the morning.  Not a bad view for a hotel window.

 

The water has the magnificent turquoise color due to “rock flour”, microscopic flakes of crushed limestone from the glacier.

We started out at Lake Moraine, just a few miles away and almost as picturesque.

Lake Moraine

Lake Moraine

Here we got the laugh of the day–there is a log jam at the near end of the lake, and we saw a couple of idiots out on it:

Two doofusses (doofi?) for our amusement

Two doofusses (doofi?) for our amusement

That isn’t ground they are standing on, it’s a little log jam.  We saw both of them slip and step into the water.  Why were they there?  Looking for a drowned cell phone.  How the phone got there we never determined.  Somehow, they did indeed find it, although I think it is most likely a paperweight by now.  Perhaps they needed the water soaked carcass for their insurance claim.

Takakkaw Falls

Takakkaw Falls

 

Next up was Takakkaw Falls–the third highest falls in Canada our guide said.  Takakkaw is a Cree word for “it is spectacular”.  Or so they tell us.

I posted so many wildlife photos from Africa that it seems wrong not to have one here.

The dangerous wildlife of Alberta

The dangerous wildlife of Alberta

 

This guy is so tame I just know he’d eat from your hand if you had a peanut or slice of banana.

Next we looked at yet another beautiful lake, this one full of tourists struggling with canoes.  I thought everyone learned how to paddle a canoe in Boy Scout or Girl Scout camp, but that isn’t true.  It’s fun to watch the non-natives do silly things.  I also noticed that in 100% of the cases, even in this post-feminist world, the man sits in the back of the canoe and the woman sits in the front.

This is Emerald lake:

Sure is green water.

Sure is green water.

 

You don't have to know what you're doing to rent a canoe.

You don’t have to know what you’re doing to rent a canoe. You do have to wear a livevest.

Finally, we got back to the hotel, took a nap and went to dinner.  I sadly underestimated how busy this place is, and wasn’t able to get a reservation for dinner at the premier restaurant on site.  My friend Doug Jacobs told me the most romantic meal of his life had been on the top of this hotel on his honeymoon ages ago, but that facility is closed entirely now.  We ended up at Lago, the Italian restaurant in the complex.

Gail and Ross began with the carpaccio, and could not stop raving about it.  Ross said if we were on a cruise ship he would have had another.

I had the lamb chops/lamb sausage dinner.

The beets and potatoes were as attractive a presentation as I've seen.

The beets and potatoes were as attractive a presentation as I’ve seen.

 

The presentation was excellent, and the food was equally so. We all enjoyed our meal, as we expected we would in this world class resort.

Ross is out of here early tomorrow, and we are taking another private tour for the day, ending up at the airport for our flight home.  Beth the Travel Goddess took pity on us and upgraded our seats a bit so we shouldn’t be quite as cramped on the way home.  Life is good.

The missing photos

I’m in a really good hotel, the Fairmont Lake Louise.  Good hotel=good internet.  I can finally post all everything from the first day of the trip.

1000 bottles of beer on the wall

If you’re getting on a train for an 11 hour ride, and plan to do the same thing the next day, it seems only right to start singing 1000 bottles of beer on the wall.  Gail was not amused, but I liked it.

(This post should be illustrated by a dozen gorgeous photographs, each perfectly composed and processed.  The hotel in which we are residing has very poor internet, and I’m not succeeding in uploading them.  Use your imaginations.)

The train left Vancouver this morning at 7:30, following a rousing send off including a bagpiper.  There are over 500 passengers, and a vast horde of staff to keep us all happy and well fed.

The well fed part is important, because it is obvious that they have figured out the best way to pass the long, long day of doing nothing is to feed us early and often.  We are in the “gold” class, which means we get to sit in the top of one of those domed railcars, while the lower level is the dining area and kitchen.

There are 72 seats in our coach.  Half the people went down for the early seating for breakfast, while they fed us fresh scones and tea/coffee to keep us happy.  When it was our turn, we struggled down the incredibly steep, tiny, spiral staircase for an excellent breakfast of croissants, fruit, eggs and smoked salmon, potatoes, juice and more tea.

Back upstairs, we watched the Canadian countryside go by.  Noticed how people love to wave at the train, and made sure to wave back.  Shopped in the catalog of souvenir goods.  Nodded off.  Waited for the front half to go down to lunch, then waited for them to come back.

Lunch was tomato soup or salad.  Ross had the risotto and bravely ate the mushrooms.  Hope he lives.  I had the “untraditional fish and chips”.  You don’t really want to have a deep fryer on a moving train, so they rolled the fish in crushed potato chips and baked it, then served it with spaghetti squash and roasted spuds.  Very, very untraditional, but good and inventive.  Then a warm brownie with chocolate sauce and ice cream.  Got to keep the customers strength up for all that strenuous sitting and watching.

Somewhere we passed through Hells Gate, the narrowest part of the Fraser River.  The train slowed to 2 or 3 kilometers an hour so we could take photos.  Imagine a great photo here.

We kept riding.  I’m down to 563 bottles of beer on the wall.  The train pulled into Kamloops, a not very modern city waaaay out in the boondocks where we will spend the night.

The train people have this down to a science.  The train stops and there are busses right next to each car designated to take people to their proper hotels–some of us are staying fancier places than others.  Except than in Kamloops, there are no fancy hotels.  We are in the Hotel Five540Forty.  Whatever graphic designer came up with that should be shot.  Hotel 540 is NOT 90 times better than the Motel 6.  This should perhaps be called the Hotel 9.5, that would be closer.

But it doesn’t really matter.  We got in at 6 pm and we have to be back on the bus at 6:15 am.  Enough time to go out to dinner, sleep a bit, stagger out of bed and we’re gone.

Dinner worked out well, though.  We were just going to a Mexican place for something small, because we ate so much on the train.  But it’s hotter than hell here, about 95, and the Mexican place had no air conditioning.  I kept looking and found Terra, reputedly the best place in town.  There was discussion on the train today that people had requested the train concierge to get reservations at Terra and he had been unable.  Nonetheless, I walked in the door, felt the cool air, fell to my knees and begged the hostess for a table and it worked.

Gail wanted a crab salad that the chef was unwilling to provide, so she had the Caesar and loved it.  I had the duck, which was very good, and Ross had the halibut, which he thought tasted like soap.  They offered a maple bourbon ice cream sandwich for dessert which I could not resist, but should have.  Not enough bourbon.  The garnish was a tiny strip of bacon, which was interesting and made an excellent photo.  You’ll have to imagine it, too.

The sun set about 10:15.  Tomorrow we go even further north and end up in Lake Louise.  I’m sure they will feed us impressively on the train, and then the Fairmont Lake Louise, that huge stone pile that Canadian Pacific Rail built at the turn of the century to give people a reason to ride the trains, will beckon with an excellent room and fabulous dinner.  If their internet is as good, I’ll be posting photos, too. I should have finished my song by then.  I may have a beer to celebrate.

Looking for more adventure

Life has been a bit slow lately.  We haven’t done anything spectacular since last Saturday, so something had to give. We’re going on an adventure.

Up early this morning to catch a plane to Vancouver, BC.  We’re taking the train through the Canadian Rockies, and we’re going the fancy way, on the Rocky Mountaineer. Gail’s son Ross is joining us–he mentioned to me a few months ago that he wanted to take a train trip in Canada, and I knew that Gail had the same desire.  A few thousand phone calls, emails and texts later, here we are.  Ross’s wife and sons didn’t want to make the trip, so it’s just the three of us rollicking across the mountains.

First, we had to get to Vancouver, so we arranged tickets on Air Canada Rouge, a new, cheapo version of Air Canada.  It sucks.  The seats are the closest together I’ve ever seen–here’s Gail, look how close the seat in front of her is:

The closest seat pitch in the universe.

The closest seat pitch in the universe.

 

They nickle and dime you for everything–$25 to check a bag, $30 to reserve a seat online.  Not even a miserable bag of stale peanuts.  Fanatics about checking the size of carry on luggage.  Some kind of inflight entertainment that you can only access through an iPad or iPhone–but they will rent you an iPad for $10.  I looked them up in Wikipedia, and found this:

 Customer reviews of Air Canada Rouge on Skytrax have been predominantly negative.

I’m not a fan of Air Canada Rouge.

 

I AM a fan of Vancouver, though.  This city is always beautiful and welcoming.  We are staying at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, which is right near Canada Centre, where we had a national bridge tournament 15 years ago.  It’s fantastic, ultra-modern and filled with every luxury and amenity you can imagine.  The service is on a par with the decor, and we love it.  Sadly, we have to leave at 6:55 tomorrow morning to catch our train.

The view is spectacular–there is a building across the street that perfectly reflects the water and the mountains.

This could be the inspiration for the Impressionists

This could be the inspiration for the Impressionists

I asked the concierge where to have the best dinner, and she sent us to Joe Forte’s, a 5 minute cab ride up the street.  Dinner was good, but not great, and the service was non-impressive.  I had the sockeye salmon:

Sockeye salmon, with potatoes and veggies.  Creamed spinach in the background.

Sockeye salmon, with potatoes and veggies. Creamed spinach in the background.

 

The made a big deal of telling me the fish was cooked medium rare–which seems to mean sushi in the center and slightly warm on the edges.  That’s OK, I like sushi.

Gail had the fish and chips.  Vancouver is a very British city, or it used to be, so you would think this would be good here.  Well, the fish was fine, the presentation on newspaper (or something that looks like it) was clever, but the “chips” were soggy, undercooked french fries.

Fish and chips that wouldn't make it in London

Fish and “chips” that wouldn’t make it in London

 

Once again, service was the drawback.  The entrees took entirely too long to come out of the kitchen.  The dessert menu had a brand of port I never see on menus at home (it’s Australian), and I was ready to order a glass with a cheese plate, but the waiter took so long to return that I gave up and just asked for the check.  I’m sure my cardiologist would approve.

Back at the hotel, we drank in the benefits of being so far north–at 10 pm the sun was still setting.

From the 20th floor balcony after 10 at night.

From the 20th floor balcony after 10 at night.

This is a beautiful city, but things will get even better tomorrow in the Rockies, then we end up in Lake Louise for 2 nights.  Stay tuned, more adventure to come.

Just a quiet Saturday afternoon

Our friend Harry decided he needed to throw one more party before he was too old to wear heels, so he designated yesterday as the day for a Drag Barbecue.  Everyone was invited, costumes were mandatory.

Now some people think a horde of gay man in drag must perforce lead to sin and debauchery, but I can personally testify that there was neither. I looked high and low, being a major fan of debauchery especially, sin is just a sideline.

Since all the gay men were coming as women, I decide to go as a gay man–specifically one of those young, impossibly thin and trim pretty boys known as a “twink”.  I had the eye makeup, the tank top, the shorty shorts and the Italian loafers.  Strangely, I still had to explain it to people.  No, there are no photos.

Words cannot possibly describe the scene, but photos will:

 

Watch the birdie

When Gail and I went to Kenya and Tanzania a few years ago, we found ourselves entranced by the bird life.  People go to Africa to see the “Big Five” animals–Elephant, lion, rhino, hippo and leopard, I think.  Or maybe giraffe.  Or gnu.  In truth, there are 10 or 12 animals of interest, and once you’ve seen 30 buffalo, they all start to look alike.

Then you find out that there are 452 or so different varieties of bird, from tiny hummers to enormous ostriches, storks, cranes and flamingos. Plus penguins.  They nest in trees, they nest in holes in the ground.  Some are incredibly drab to blend in, some are flamboyantly colorful.  The birds of Africa are a never ending spectacle we enjoyed in East Africa, and were thrilled to see again in South Africa.

I got plenty of good photos, and I want to share them.  Here’s a gallery of the variety and splendor of avian Africa.

The medical mess

This shouldn’t surprise me, I can read the papers and everyone knows that our medical system is seriously broken.  Obamacare is supposed to fix at least some of the problem, and maybe it will.  But without some fundamental change, we’ll just keep going down the same old road.

I spent 2 days in Kaiser in April, and the bill finally came in.  I’m stunned.  Gobsmacked. Amazed and astounded.

The bill for my angioplasty.

The bill for my angioplasty.

 

The numbers on the page are just so much accounting gibberish, designed to keep Kaiser in the profit column and having no possible relation to reality.

For instance, there is $17, 626 for “Operating Room services, general.”  Very specific, $17,626.  Not rounded to the nearest $5 or $10 or $100.  Makes you think they actually figured out what it costs.

Except that I was never in an operating room.  My “procedure” was done in the cath lab–which comes with its own, precise, $14,321 fee.  So now we’ve spent $31,947 for the room for an hour.  Plus $1,150 for sterile supply surgical supplies and $1,350 for other, presumably non-sterile, supplies.  I don’t get to keep any of those drapes and wraps, either.  They just re-wash them and charge another $2,500 the next day.

This is Kaiser, the cardiologist is on staff and salaried.  Nonetheless, there is a bill for $7,288 for “Cardiology, general”.

I have no possible idea what “Specialty services, observation hours”, means.  Is that the couple of MD’s who dropped into my room for 10 minutes?  What else was there that was worth $10,500?

Ever wonder what a stent looks like?  It’s just a tiny piece of tubular mesh.

This costs more than my first new car.

This costs more than my first new car.

The bill for that bad boy is $8,000.  Pretty high price for a slinky.

All of this is just funny money.  Kaiser is billing Kaiser, then Kaiser is writing itself a check, and complaining that they can’t make any money at the rates they charge me.  Nobody can explain what all these charges are, or how they possibly relate to the real world.  The numbers are very precise, the books balance, the accountants are happy.  Meanwhile, even with Obamacare, there are too many uninsured in this country, and many more underinsured.  Medical costs are a leading cause of bankruptcy.

Not that this bothers me in regards to my own finances–all I have to pay for this is $250, which I can arrange if I just mow a few more lawns.  But it sure bothers me in terms of what it is doing to our nation.  Yes, we spend too much defending the world and too little taking care of our own citizens, but that’s another argument. The question I have here is how can we make intelligent decisions regarding our national healthcare problem if we can’t get any sort of intelligent and honest reporting on what things really cost?  Stents don’t cost $8,000, operating rooms don’t cost $31,947 for a 1 hour procedure, drapes that will be washed and re-used don’t cost $2,500.

Big Medicine is just lying about the real costs of medical care, and Washington lets them.  The press lets them.  Apparently, the public lets them.  I just don’t understand.  Maybe Kaiser will see this and call me and explain the bill, but I’m not counting on it.

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