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Escape from reality and head to Las Vegas

  • Written by Deborah Stone
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Opulent hotels and casinos line the famed Las Vegas Strip; a dazzling main street that can be seen from outer space. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Las Vegas is the world’s most famous monument to excess and wild abandon.

It’s a place where anything goes — where a midget size Elvis croons tunes on one corner of the Strip, while down the way, a woman in scanty attire with head-to-toe tattoos breakdances for a crowd; where men work the street flicking cards in your face, advertising a menu of risqué and raunchy adult entertainment options. It’s also where persistent hawkers try and entice passersby into their bars, nightclubs and dens of iniquity with that one simple, but heavily loaded word — "free."

It’s an obvious trap, but there’s always some poor sucker who falls for the ploy and ends up learning his lesson the hard way.

The cornucopia of vices on display 24 hours a day along with the glitz, bright lights and all you can eat buffets serve as magnets to the millions of tourists who flock to Vegas.

They come to escape from reality and to get themselves a big slice of fantasy pie with a hefty dollop of decadence on top.

I recently spent a few days in this razzle dazzle town after a lapse of almost seven years. Other than more mega, ostentatious hotels and casinos and newly created show venues, the place hadn’t changed much.

The most noticeable addition was the City Center (still under construction), a collection of new hotels, residences, spas, restaurants and upscale shopping set right off the Strip.

Vegas was its typical raucous and crazy self with a host of colorful characters and for a few days, it was highly entertaining — especially the people.

Watching people is a great Vegas pastime. I’m especially fascinated with the older women playing the penny slots. Most are hard core veterans of the game and they will sit until the wee hours of the morning, cigarette in hand, smoke billowing around them, as they work the machines in earnest.

And then there are the intense card players at the high stakes poker and blackjack tables where the pressure is palpable and the mood is dead serious. Or the group of gregarious, excited folks having a winning streak over at the craps table. Once strangers, they’re now best buds, hoping that Lady Luck continues to keep them in good company.

Casinos make the perfect showcase for human nature to unveil itself in all its blemished glory. It’s a psychologist’s dream come true.

I also like to spend time sitting at an outdoor café and watching the masses stroll along the Strip.

Here’s where you’ll see people from all over the world, many wide eyed and mouths agape, taking in the sights. And let’s not forget about the packs of young guys on the hunt for the opposite sex and the throngs of young gals in pursuit of the same.

As darkness falls, the mating calls get louder, the mood becomes rowdier and inhibitions go by the wayside.

The scene is akin to a colossal Mad Hatter party where booze, not tea, is the drink of choice.

Although the people provide much of the entertainment, shows take center stage in Vegas.

You’ll find world class entertainers, from famous singers to well known comedians and magicians. And then there are the multi-act productions, which are in a class of their own.

Cirque du Soleil has a bit of a monopoly in this market. Currently, the Montreal-based company has seven shows operating at different casinos on the Strip.

The productions are a fusion of acrobatics, dance, comic antics, music and awe inducing visual effects. And audiences love them.

In past visits, I have seen Cirque’s "O" and "Mystere," both of which were wonderfully entertaining. This time around, I caught "LOVE," a theatrical spectacle set to music by the Beatles.

The show began as a collaboration between George Harrison and Cirque’s Guy LaLiberte.

After Harrison’s death, the remaining Beatles and the families of the late group members helped make Harrison’s vision a reality, using the master tapes at Abbey Road Studios.

The music director is none other than Sir George Martin, who is best known for his work producing the Beatles’ music.

Often referred to as a "rock ‘n roll poem," the show can be described as a psychedelic journey through the trends and social/political climate of the ’60s, with a liberal dose of Beatles’ history.

It’s a celebration of the musical legacy of this iconic group. The content of the selected songs is artfully interpreted through a series of innovative performances done by a cast of international artists.

They include acrobats, tumblers, extreme sports athletes, urban freestyle dancers and aerialists, all who bring a youthful, raw energy to the production, while showcasing their impressive talents. Each of the acts astounds and overloads the senses.

In "Help," for example, four inline skaters take the stage to leap 11-foot ramps in high octane fashion.

"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" features some incredible high flying aerial moves, while "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" culminates in a jaw dropping swing trapeze routine. Bungees figure prominently.

They are climbed and repelled, used to propel birds around the stage during "Blackbird" and provide flying devices for airborne performers in "Come Together."

Dynamic and larger-than-life characters take the stage in a carnival like atmosphere, which is enhanced by a montage of images and photos of the group.

The action takes place in a custom-built theater-in-the-round at the Mirage. Audiences are enveloped in a state-of-the-art panoramic visual and surround sound environment, which helps to create an intimate and powerful entertainment experience.

"LOVE" is an unforgettable trip down memory lane, which will leave you with feelings of nostalgia for a bygone era.

Down the street at the Wynn is "Le Rêve" (The Dream), another show I caught while in town.

Though not a Cirque production, it is reminiscent of one.

It’s an evocative aqua spectacle, also in-the-round, which features a blend of aerial acrobatics, provocative choreography and outrageous antics. The production conjures up an imaginary world with its elaborate effects, mystifying characters, and awe-inspiring feats.

Performers dazzle the audience on stage, in the air and from the water. They appear from every angle of the theater, at times ascending from the pool, descending from the ceiling or running through the aisles alongside the audience.

One of the highlights of the show is a tango number performed with both synchronized swimmers in the water and tango dancers on a platform. It’s a multi-level extravaganza of red high heels and legs moving to the intoxicating beat of the music.

A pair of strong men and their daring feats of strength is another crowd favorite. "Le Rêve" immersed me into a world of fantasy, adventure and intrigue and I was enchanted and captivated by its magic.

Choosing shows at Vegas is like being a kid at a candy shop, albeit a very expensive one.

The selection is extensive and can be overwhelming, especially for the first time visitor.

Half price tickets do exist if you’re willing to stand in line and not be picky about availability.

And there are also hotel packages that include admission to some of the hottest productions.

For me, being in Vegas without seeing a show is not an option.

It’s part of the total experience of this city – a place that stands alone in its opulence, its magnetism and its garishness.

For information on all things Vegas: www.visitlasvegas.com

'Chamois Butt'r is for your buns, not your bread!'

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Belgium_035"Try some Chamois Butt’r," said Barbara, with a knowing chuckle. "It’s for your buns, though, not your bread!"

I was instantly all ears about this special cream that cyclists claim has magical powers when it comes to easing sore butts.

Barbara had taken pity on me after watching me ever so gingerly get on and off my bike.

It was day three of a week-long cycling tour through Flanders, a region encompassing parts of Holland and Belgium, and my derriere had begun to protest in earnest. I gratefully applied the supposed wonder balm and hopped back on my bike, hoping for the best.

I don’t know if it was a psychosomatic response or whether it was the fact that my rear end became sufficiently calloused, but the stuff actually worked. And I no longer needed to engage in what I called, "one cheek on the seat" style of riding.

A sore butt was the only complaint I had during my European cycling trip – a trip awash with many memorable sights and experiences.

As I had never been on a cycling adventure, I chose my destination based on a few factors: flat terrain (no Pyrenees for me!), plenty of historic sites and picturesque scenery, a country with a reputation for good food and a notably cycling-friendly populace.

My decision to go with Austin Lehman Adventures was a no-brainer, as the company is top rated (World’s Best Tour Operator for 2009 by readers of Travel & Leisure Magazine) and offers an extensive selection of bike tours throughout Europe.

I began my journey in Brussels, a cosmopolitan city that oozes charm from its pores with a mix of modern and traditional elements and French, Flemish and German influences.

Among its many districts is the famed Grand-Place, once described as the "most beautiful theatre in the world."

This iconic square with its imposing Gothic and Neo-Gothic style buildings, cobblestone streets, bustling market stalls and colorful splashes of flowers at every corner is a treat for the senses.

People here appreciate fine food, fashion and art, and they covet their leisure time.

Belgium_108Sitting at one of the ubiquitous outdoor cafes in summer is a frequent pastime; one which I quickly became enamored with because of the opportunity it presented to people watch.

The food, though, is reason enough. In this gastronomic city, as well as throughout the region, you’ll find most every type of cuisine.

I felt free to indulge, as cycling 30 to 50 miles a day and doing a fair amount of walking gave me the license to eat heartily.

It’s the country’s famous Belgian waffles, "frites" (fries), chocolate and beer that get the most notoriety when it comes to culinary specialties.

Chocolate shops abound with eye popping confections lined up like trophies in the windows.

Their wafting aromas seduce you as you stroll the streets.

These compete with the smell of crisp fries from the chip stands and the sweet, warm scent of baked dough from the waffle carts.

And then there’s the beer. Nothing comes between Belgians and their beer. There are hundreds of different types and each has its own unique glass embossed with the beer’s logo.

Do as the locals do and savor them slowly, appreciating each brew’s individual characteristics and flavors.

From Brussels, I went to medieval Middleburg, Holland, which is where Austin Lehman’s "Flavors of Flanders" cycling tour officially began. Some days our ride took us through the bucolic countryside, past traditional Dutch windmills, artisan cheese factories, pastoral farms and tiny hamlets.

Other days, we biked along the canals, through forests, atop the dunes and next to the sea.

Our guide Tom drove the support van and would magically appear at various stopping points on the route, with snacks, water and a perpetually warm smile.

It’s important to note that Austin Lehman cycling tour guides typically don’t ride with their groups unless the group is large and warrants two leaders (a practice that is followed by a majority of companies that offer such tours).

Cyclists are given route directions, distances and maps at daily briefings, along with information about notable sights along the way, pre-determined lunch stops and any other pertinent data.

Guides drive along or in the vicinity of the route and periodically check on their group to ensure that no one gets lost.

They’re also available to lend assistance with bike repairs if needed.

Additionally, they transport the luggage from hotel to hotel, make dinner arrangements, join the group for most meals and attend to all other details of the trip.

I admit, I was a bit taken aback when I learned I would have to read maps and follow directions, as opposed to mindlessly following a guide.

But, no one rides alone. Participants band together in small pairs and trios and help each other find their way.

Within my trio, we each took turns being in the lead, though we all paid attention to signs, landmarks and mileage to keep one another on track.

Belgium_177By the time the week was up, I felt a sense of pride at mastering the ability to follow the route while remaining upright on my bike – no small feat for a directionally dyslexic klutz!

One of my favorite places along our route was Bruges, Belgium’s Cinderella city. This romantic, canal-laced town is a jewel box, overflowing with historical treasures.

Horses and buggies clip clop down the cobblestone streets, bells ring from the multitude of churches, boats and preening swans glide through the waterways and outdoor cafes beckon you to rest your weary feet, after taking in all the fascinating sights.

And believe me, there are many, from museums with extensive collections of medieval art to ancient churches containing tombs of past nobility.

This is a city that begs to be walked, though you should first hop on a boat tour to gain a feel for the layout of the place before exploring it on foot.

Bruges’s well-preserved medieval architecture is among the most impressive in Europe.

Imposing red brick buildings, gabled facades, towering spires and ornate guildhouses (once occupied by the various trades that helped establish Bruges’s prominence during medieval times) will wow you as you explore this miniature Venice.

Before leaving, make sure to climb the 366 steps of the 260 feet tall Belfry in the Market.

You’ll be rewarded with awesome views of the city and beyond.

Though Bruges was a definite highlight of my cycling tour, some of the smaller villages were equally enchanting, such as Damme and Veere, with their sweet cottages, immaculate gardens and old Gothic style town halls.

These peaceful havens were far from the hubbub of city life and as I cycled through them, I felt closer to the people. Riding a bike allowed me to make a more personal connection with the culture. And I was able to do it at my own pace, with the ability to stop and smell the tulips.

It was interesting to note that cycling is a way of life in this area of the world, with everyone from children to senior citizens sporting a bike. They use it as a significant means of transportation to get to school and to work.

And they cycle to the stores to shop and do their daily errands.

I saw women in high heels, men with briefcases and children with their schoolbags all riding bikes. Bike paths abound and drivers are respectful of cyclists.

People I encountered along the way were friendly and always willing to lend assistance when needed.

The final stop on the tour was Ghent, another city that earns top marks in the charm department.

With its famed churches, museums and Gothic and Renaissance style buildings and monuments, it, like Bruges, is an historical wonderland.

Take a carriage trip through the ancient heart of the town at night when the inner city is illuminated and you’ll feel like a character out of a fairytale.

If you go:

• Austin Lehman Adventures offers a variety of biking, multisport and family vacations in a number of countries throughout the world: 800-575-1540 or www.austinlehman.com

• Flanders tourism information: www.visitflanders.com

Guatemala - the cultural gem of Central America

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Guatamala_145Antigua charms visitors with its 17th century Spanish colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and quaint shops.

Guatemala is the crown jewel of Central America. Its scenic beauty, colorful culture, exotic wildlife and ancient history dazzle visitors from all over the world. And its warm, comfortable temps make it appealing for travelers at anytime of the year.

Unlike its oft visited neighbors, Belize and Costa Rica, however, Guatemala is not a major tourist mecca – yet. Those who do venture to this "land of eternal spring" come for its unpolished appeal – for its authenticity and genuine character. And they delight in the hospitable nature of the people, who take pride in sharing their rich heritage with others.

Though it is only about the size of Tennessee, Guatemala’s diversity in its geography, wildlife and inhabitants is impressive. It has everything from tropical jungles and active volcanoes to mountain cloud forests, lakes and beaches.

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