Friday, February 26, 2010

Learning Lessons in Las Vegas

Las Vegas! The last time I was there, in April 2004, I hated the place. But it is a good starting point for a road trip to the Grand Canyon, and there are lots of really cheap flights to Vegas from San Jose. With great reluctance, I organized our grand Canyon trip through this city that I described in my emails home in 2004 as “…an abomination of greed and decadence…” with “…its sheer unashamed attitude of providing humans with every opportunity to wholeheartedly indulge in all that is not quite pure!”

Harsh words! Yet my excursions to Reno, in recent years, may have softened my attitude towards Vegas. Sure, it lays a variety of vices on a platter, but it really is down to the individual as to how to deal with that. There is a fun element in the gambling now for me. Last time I passed this way, I was dirt-poor, as I was returning from a two year world tour and didn’t have the latitude to lose money in casinos. Now, I can afford to lose twenty bucks (last of the big time spenders!), and my aim is to stretch that twenty out to last me all evening. I still suffer pangs of pity for the scantily clad waitresses, busting a gut to earn a living, or shudder to see beautiful young women gyrating in their underwear on stages throughout the casino. I saw some people sitting, dead eyed, for hours throwing money into a machine and wondered what pleasure they could derive from that. Each to their own! I don't want to lecture about the place but to give advice about staying here!

Gambling aside, and that’s a big aside as you can hardly escape from it here. There are slot machines in the airport, in the convenience stores and just about everywhere you can turn. Las Vegas is a Party Town. It’s all about creating the dream and filling the imagination.

You can tour the world and rove through history on The Strip. There’s the Venetican for that touch of Venice, complete with canals and gondolas.

Travel back in time to visit the ancient Egyptians at the Luxor, and the Romans at Caesar’s Palace.

Lots of famous cities, like New York and Paris, are represented by scaled down versions of their famous landmarks

They even had a contribution from the Irish.

How glamorous? They even knew how cold my Mums home town was that day!


The only place to stay in Vegas is “The Strip”. Don’t even consider anywhere else! Last time I was here, I stayed just off The Strip, in a cheap dive. Our friends had their van broken into and had a lot of stuff stolen. The money we spent on taxis getting to and fro The Strip safely would have contributed nicely to staying in a better place, situated on The Strip. All in all, it proved to be more trouble and cost than the $25 a night room was worth!

There is a huge range of budgets to choose from on The Strip. The first night we were there, we stayed in the Imperial Palace for $39.20 in total between us.

This concrete box, with windows and balconies, is situated slap bang, mid strip and is an excellent location from which to see many of the wonders of The Strip. From here you can easily dander to places such as Treasure Island, The Mirage - with its erupting volcano, The Bellagio and The Venetian – we had a nice dinner there too.

We had Breakfast in Paris, Paris the next morning before we left.

The room in The Imperial Palace was fine, with an oriental theme, but it could have done with a paint job and new carpets. It did have comfortable beds and was surprisingly quiet, except for in the morning, when a tour bus idled in a courtyard, beneath our window.

On our way back through Vegas, homeward bound, (I’ll deal with Vegas in this blog and discuss the Grand Canyon separately in the next blog) we stayed further south on The Strip, in the Egyptian themed Luxor. This casino hotel charges a resort fee of $12.95 on top of the room rate which was $78.40. For that you get a small bottle of water and access to the gym! I could do without the gym and buy my water somewhere else, but this resort fee is simply a money-making scam that many Nevada resorts now enforce. It’s annoying, but unless you refuse to stay there, I can’t see how to beat it. Incidentally, The Imperial Palace had no such fee, though you also had to do without the minuscule bottle of water too. Such hardship!

The Luxor room was adequate, and certainly a novelty, built into the side of the pyramid that gives The Luxor its distinctive shape. It is an easy landmark to pick out on The Strip and at night has a huge beam of light shining from the peak of the thirty story high pyramid.

Though the room cost over twice as much as The Imperial Palace, it was smelly (stale urine and cigarette smoke, Mum reckoned!), and it had no bathtub, though the shower was large, but it leaked all over the bathroom floor. This was by no means luxury accommodation. From this location we could explore the southern section of The Strip – The Mandalay Bay, The Excalibur and even take a walk up to New York, New York.

The restaurants were excellent and we had both dinner and breakfast in the Luxor casino complex.

You are bound to find accommodation to suit your budget and style on The Strip. Check out the likes of Expedia for rates. Then, book directly with the hotel to avoid having to prepay. Very often you can cancel such bookings 24hrs ahead of time too, which you can’t do on Expedia. Check their cancellation policies to be sure.


I learned two very valuable lessons on this trip. The first is to do with car rental in Las Vegas. Don’t rent at the airport, contrary to the set up in most airports where car rental is on site, it is a huge hassle to rent from this airport. The rental area that serves the airport is a 15 minute bus ride away, whereas every hotel on The Strip has a direct shuttle to and from the airport. If Las Vegas is your only destination, you don’t even need a car. The strip has a monorail that runs between the major casinos, and if the weather is pleasant then walking is a good option, as the train ticket is $5 a go – expensive, and the walk gets you away from the ringing and bleeping of the slot machines! If you start to miss the clamor and noise many casinos have walk ways between them. I’ve heard that you can walk The Strip with out ever going outside.

Recession has taken its toll on the car rental industry!

Photo taken on Route 66 on way to Grand Canyon.

The second lesson probably applies not just in Las Vegas. If you do rent a car (or even rock up in your own car) and the hotel has free valet service, use it! I was reluctant to use the valet service at The Imperial Palace. In the back of my head I thought “What if there was some kind of emergency and I need my car quickly?” By emergency, I suppose, I’m thinking earthquake, bomb scare, fire, flood or other act of God. Also, we had no change and the tipping policy confused me. I couldn’t remember when to tip. (I looked it up after our stay at The Imperial Palace – you tip when you get your car back, so if your pockets are empty when you arrive, that’s no big deal.)

So, we self parked. We were tired, the car park was huge, and we got lost on the way into the reception. The next morning, we had to search three floors of the car park, dragging our suitcases behind us, getting grouchy and irritable, before we eventually found the car. It’s hard to find a car you’ve only seen it once or twice from the outside.

With great relief we found the car and headed to the Grand Canyon.

On our return to Vegas, homeward bound, there was no question of “to valet or not to valet” - we happily handed the car over. Lets face it, what good would the car be in an earthquake anyway, especially if we couldn’t find it?

On leaving Las Vegas, we had to find the car rental facility amid huge traffic chaos. President Obama was visiting – I’ll bet he heard we were in town and was hoping to bump into us. Honestly, if he’d just give us some notice, we’d be happy to have a coffee with him and try to fit him into our schedule!

Thanks to Jane – the nickname for our GPS system (I’ll explain more about that in the next blog) we found a short cut and managed to make it to the rental place, only to remember that we had not topped it off with gas (petrol - for my European readers), so I dumped poor Mum and the bags there. Heart thumping with stress and the fear of getting lost, I went and got the gas and was back in fifteen minutes flat!

It is always a relief to get to the departure gate. And a bummer when the flight is delayed, as ours was, for an hour! However, it was worth it as we watched the Presidents motorcade drive across the tarmac and minutes later Air Force One took off in front of us! Cool!

Next week – The Grand Canyon!

Byddi Lee

Friday, February 19, 2010

Something Fruity, Something Green!

Last week, my Mum arrived from Ireland for a three week visit. She has been my gardening inspiration all my life. We grew up on organic vegetables in the days when the word “organic” was usually matched with “chemistry” and struck fear into the hearts of science students! Her visit coincided nicely with the ground breaking ceremony for the new education center at Edgewood Natural Preserve. Mum weeded there on previous visits, so as volunteers, we were both invited to this very special event.

Whilst, we were that far up the peninsula, we decided to first visit the Yerba Buena Native Plant Nursery, to see if I could find plants suitable for one of the problem areas in my garden.

The east side of our house has a narrow border that gets very little sun. There is a Crape Myrtle tree, Lagerstroemia indica, in this section that produces a beautiful show of pink blossom right outside the kitchen window during the summer.

Native to East Asia and Australia, not California, they are considered non-invasive by the California Invasive Plant Council. Invasive or not, I’ve been warned by people that they are impossible to get rid of, so I plan on keeping it. It is supposed to get “medium” water. Whatever that means? How is a girl from Ireland supposed to judge what “medium” water is in California! Last year I didn’t water it at all, and it still looked gorgeous. I wanted to plant other things there that won’t need watered.

The Crape Myrtle does tend to plunge the rest of that, 36 feet by 2.5 feet, strip into shade, especially with summer foliage. My challenge was to find native plants for this border which required no extra watering and that liked the shade. I did some research and decided on a few species.

The road to the Yerba Buena Nursery was a surprise. Twisty windy roads led us deep into the Santa Cruz Mountains, a hair-raising journey after so much rain, leaving the road slick with mud, but oh boy, when we got there, it was so worth it. Matt, the member of staff who dealt with us, was great. He patiently listened to our description of our garden and our concerns, directing us to plants which would suit best. He looked at my list and agreed with my first three choices:

Yerba Buena, Satureja douglasii, is a herb a little like mint – but not as stinky!

Island Coral Bells, Heuchera maxima, grow tall enough to peek over the fence at my lovely neighbors, Karla and Al. They have pretty white blossoms –the Coral Bells that is, not Karla and Al!

California Dutchmans Pipe, Aristolochia californica, is a curious little vine that will climb up my Crape Myrtle, allegedly without hurting it. Its strange wee flowers are supposed to look like fat little pipes.

I had liked the look of the native grass Fescue, Festuca 'Siskiyou Blue', but Matt reckoned that it would look better in an area that might get some more sun. I decided to save it for another, more suitable place in the front lawn project, and he recommended the Woodland Strawberry, Fragaria californica (vesca), for ground cover. Matt said that it would need some water, and I clarified how much that was - watering twice a month in the summer. So, if we get rain from November to April, then I have to only water 12 times a year. That, I could live with! I love strawberries and was excited at the prospect of growing them. Tiny as these native berries are, they pack a punch in flavor. Now that we had changed from ‘dry’ plants to ‘moist’ plants, it expanded my options; the Crape Myrtle will love it too, as will the other new additions to my shade garden family.

Suddenly, from the corner of my eye I spotted Mum bending down, picking a berry from a tiny bush I didn’t recognize and popping it in her mouth!

“What are you doing? You can’t just go around eating berries!” I scolded her. Oh, how our roles have changes these days! I’m threatening to put reins on her, the way she did to me, when I was two.

“It says here that you can eat them,” she said. I looked at the label, still expecting her to froth at the mouth and keel over, and sure enough, it was an edible berry. Matt told us its common name is Salal, botanic name - Gaultheria shallon. He reckoned that it would do well in our shady, now “moist” garden.

He also showed me a Huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum, described on the nursery’s website as being “one of our tastiest native plants”. So now, I’ve got six different species, four you can eat, a curiosity that climbs and the Island corral bells for a little glamour. In order to get all that, in sufficient quantities, I have to double my budget.

As I ‘hmmm and haw’ over what to jettison, Mum steps up to the plate and says she’ll contribute the difference as part of my birthday present! Good old Mum saved the day. My birthday isn’t for another month, but as she pointed out, she won’t be here then, and she knows this is something I really want. I hug her and fill up the cart!

As we walk back through the nursery, I spot various plants that I recognize from hiking. There is a delightful little Manzanita in full bloom, its pink blossom set off nicely against its bright red bark and dark green leaves. I love this shrub and I’m picturing it in the front lawn conversion.

I was so excited with this project that the next morning I got up, put on my gardening grubbies (that is, old clothes I will ruin in about five seconds flat!) and ignoring the niggly soreness on one side of the back of my throat, I headed out to garden. There was a slight drizzle. Nothing much, and I was too enthusiastic to care about getting a tad damp.

Over here they measure the rainfall in 100ths of inches. We are huge fans of Roberta Gonzales – weather woman for CBS5 and watch her every night. In fact, the entire News team is great, especially Ken and Dana. When we first moved to California, it didn’t rain for months. Then, with great excitement Roberta told us she expected rain at the end of the week. I was mildly curious. I really hadn’t missed the rain, as I had no garden at that stage, but it was all everyone was talking about. In the supermarket, the cashier warned me about the “storm” that was coming.

Next day, it grew cloudy and a little less warm. Roberta was ecstatic that night on the News, telling us that we got three one hundredths of an inch of rain! 3/100th of an inch – sure, you’d get wetter from a duck passing wind!

By mid afternoon, I had the new plants all settled in their new bed, the rain stopped and I looked at, not just my new shade garden, but my new, native fruit plant, shade garden. I was pleased, but my throat hurt badly. I was exhausted and needed to lie down. That evening my muscles ached, and it was not just from the digging that day. Eating dinner was like swallowing razorblades. I don’t know about me having green fingers, but that night I had green tonsils. I wonder where that puts me on the scale between novice and Master Gardener!

Oh well! Should have paid attention to Roberta... Plenty of R&R on the cards, and next week I’ll be blogging about our adventures in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon.

Byddi Lee

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Blog to a Muse

My Muse usually visits me at 4 am. As I lie there, listening to my husband snore gently beside me, I compose prose in my head. It begins by nudging me awake, but in my mind it sounds good, and the better I believe it to be, the wider awake I become, until it’s banging off the inside of my skull and popping open my eyelids as though they are roller blinds. The only way to purge myself and get some sleep is to get up and perform a brain dump. This post is the result of one such episode. Thus a blog is born…

I’ve always been a blogger, I just didn’t realize it. When I traveled around the world, several years ago, I religiously wrote a journal a couple of times a week. I emailed it to everyone in my address book, intending to keep in touch with my friends and make those who weren’t my friends jealous!

As time wore on, I found myself sitting on planes and buses composing my next rendition in my head, unable to rest until I scribbled it down in a notebook. I was confused by this new found passion. As a biologist, I sneered at the concept of “Arty Farty” stuff – it was all too fluffy for logical me. (Spock and Doc McCoy are my favorite Star Trek characters – enough said. Actually - Star Trek? ‘Nuff said!)

When I settled back home in Ireland, after traipsing the globe for two years, life at home was, actually, nothing to write home about! So, I began to write fiction. To my surprise and delight, my husband fully supported this. When we moved to California, he suggested that I not bother trying to find a job, but that I should concentrate on writing instead. That I did, managing to complete the first draft of a novel and several short stories, one of which got published in November 2009. Happy days!

When we moved into our house, here in San Jose, we inherited a huge garden with seven raised beds and a selection of fruit trees. A daunting prospect for a relatively new gardener, like me. The front garden is somewhat over grown, with a lawn area and a selection of privet type shrubs. I plan to tear all that out and put in Californian native plants. A fairly ambitious project but worth it. I’m a tree hugging type of gal, and I learned a lot about the local Californian flora whilst volunteering as a “Weed Warrior” at Edgewood Natural Preserve – that’s a fancy way of saying, I pulled weeds in a beautiful place!

So, I’ve decided to write a blog about my journey in gardening, traveling, life, love and the pursuit of happiness!

Whilst thinking about a name for this blog, I thought about why we came to California, and what lead me to travel so extensively in general. People have accused me of thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side. As a metaphor, it doesn’t quite work for us Irish – let’s face it, nowhere is the grass greener than in Ireland and most certainly not in California, but then, we didn’t come here for the grass!

These are pictures taken from our back yard in July 2009 (courtesy of Laura) and February 2010.

Now that the first purge has happened, I’m thinking, “What the hell am I doing at my computer?” It’s now nearly 5am. I’ve run out of steam. The muse is satisfied, as she always is by my obedience, and is not now forthcoming in any further aid. I’m all on my own now. Even though I was up early this morning, I’m still not tired.

On Saturday mornings, I go to a gardening class. I find that Californians are extremely punctual. Though the class starts at 10am, a time considered late here, everyone must be arriving in at 9.30am. At least, it seemed that way for the first week because when I arrived at 10 on the dot, the class were already settled in their seats, eyes forward, mouths shut, listening to the teacher, who had already started. She flashed me a look as though I’d walked in something best left to compost. I mouthed “sorry” and scuttled to the nearest free seat. No leisurely chat with my new neighbor, no rattle and hum of chairs and paperwork, oh no, we were straight into the business of soil structure for the first hour!

As it turned out, the class is really enjoyable, informative and there is a comfortable exchange of ideas. Judy, the girl I sat beside that first scurried morning, is as excited as I am about seeing our seeds germinate. She keeps me amused with tales of her wormery. The little blighters are constantly trying to escape and she is justifiably offended by it.

This morning, we had a recap of last week’s discussion on pest control, in particular, slug and snail control. Now that it is the rainy season, they are stampeding through my lettuce patch. Okay, well, perhaps stampeding isn’t quite the correct word but the muse is yawning at me now! Anyway, I swear by beer, in general, but especially as a form a of slug control. The trick is to fill an empty, clean yogurt carton with beer and then dig a hole near the lettuce the depth of the carton, so it is flush with the soil. It is essential to use a yogurt carton. Anything bigger means there is no beer left over for you! The slugs love the stuff too! They drink it, get drunk, fall in and drown. The first week I caught about thirty, last week not quite so many but still plenty, and the lettuce are looking great, and I'm running out of beer. I wonder will they mind if I switch to a cheaper brand? I'll keep you posted on that!

The instructor did go on to explore other methods of slug control. I considered insisting on the beer but figured that that was too much of a stereotype. Irish girl swears by beer!

So, now that the muse is spent, I must go back to bed. First, I’ll have to pop out to the back yard. The slugs are partying full swing on their fresh beer, and I swear I can hear them singing!

Byddi Lee