Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Las Vegas 1/06: The January Jinx Peaks Early

I HAVE VISITED LAS Vegas three times in January. The first two times, there was some sort of emergent situation that gave the end of the trip a bit of a jinx. In 2004, I had to leave Vegas prematurely on a redeye the night before my actual departure day, because a huge blizzard charging into the New York area would have paralyzed the airports and left me either orbiting Newark or cooling my heels in Pittsburgh. In 2005, I got food poisoning from Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Las Vegas, and spent the last night in town horribly ill and the plane flight back in a feverish zombified state. It seemed I had acquired something of a January jinx.

To counteract the former possibility for this trip, I used frequent flyer miles, so if my flight were canceled, I was out exactly $5. To guard against the latter, I stuck to eateries I had survived repeatedly in the past or ones I could trust implicitly. For the rest, I trusted, as one does in Las Vegas, to chance.

Chance soon stepped forward.

I have been staying at the Golden Nugget in Downtown Las Vegas for the past several trips. I tried them for the first time in January 2004, when they sent me a postcard with ridiculously low rates ($39/$59) for a winter stay. For the chance to stay at the nicest property in Downtown, it was an absolute steal. A sidenote: Downtown Las Vegas sits above the Strip, and was the original site of both the town itself and its gambling halls. Downtown has long offered cheaper rooms, if in sometimes older and humbler lodgings, but for hardcore gamblers the table limits offer both cheaper prices and more liberal rules. Downtown has attempted to capture more tourism by adding the Fremont Street Experience lightshow and the Neonopolis neon museum, but the fact remains that between it and the Strip, you have to cross a run-down zone of cheap motels, drive-through wedding chapels, and slum apartments. This deters the casual visitor.

But once in your hotel, especially the Nugget, you are as safe as you would be anywhere on the Strip, and you will pay less for a decent room to boot. I enjoyed my first stay at the Nugget, which used to be part of the same family of properties as the Bellagio and the Mirage, and in my two subsequent visits I found it to be kept up just as nicely. One area, however, where the new owners have not upgraded the apparatus is in the reservation system.

When I arrived, I was told that their reservation computers were down. I could check my bags with the concierge if I wanted, and they anticipated having the system up in an hour or so. I also had to pick up a rental car from Dollar, theoretically based at the end of the reservation desk. This is when I found out that Dollar had left the Golden Nugget a week before my arrival — despite my getting a confirmation email from them the night before — to be replaced by Budget.

Okay. Neither glitch was insurmountable. I was, after all, in Las Vegas already. The hard part was over. I ditched my luggage with the concierge, and called Dollar's central office to scout out another location in town. Perhaps I was still in the system, and had only to go to that outlet.

Turns out the closest Dollar was at the Sahara, which is on the North Strip, not too far from Downtown. They volunteered to send someone from Dollar over to retrieve me. Fair enough. Fifteen minutes later, a Dollar-branded car pulled up to the Nugget's rear entrance, and I asked the driver if he was the one who would take me to the Sahara. He looked surprised, because he had been told that he was transporting someone to the airport. I assured him that I was going to the Sahara for a car that had been lined up for me, and he just shrugged, unlocked the trunk, and sped me on my way.

I ended up having a pleasant chat with the gent, a relocated Chicagoan, but I couldn't help wondering if there was some poor bastard standing at the front entrance of the Nugget, bags stacked next to him in the windy Vegas morning, wondering when his transport to the airport would arrive. The way I saw it, this Dollar driver showed up precisely where and when I had confirmed it with the dispatcher. To quibble over details would be to oppose the flow of the universe. And in Las Vegas, you don't bet against a rush.

By the time I got to the faux-Arabic Mob-funded Old Vegas icon that is the Sahara, the mild irritation I had felt over the double whammy of the hotel reservation and the car glitch had subsided. What would getting angry serve? Especially on vacation? There are tens of thousands of rooms and rental cars in town — and failing the latter, a flotilla of taxis that would make the Spanish Armada look like a poorly funded bathtub navy. I had options. And plastic. I would soon exercise both.

I tooled back to the Nugget in my rental Sebring (who names a car after a Manson victim?), only to find that the reservation computer was still down. A long line of suitcase-burdened vacationers filled the lobby, the mood distinctly un-Vegas. I called home to kill the time, and while I was talking, one of the Nugget employees announced the system was back up. Perfect. I said goodbye to my parents . . . and seconds later, the same employee sheepishly declared the system down again.

This time, they tried to bribe folks with lunch at the buffet or coffee shop. I decided they had had their chance. I called Las Vegas information for the number of the Plaza, which as you can see in this map from CheapoVegas is right down the street at the head of Fremont Street. I got their reservation desk, was quoted a price on a room comparable to my still-in-limbo reservation at the Golden Nugget, accepted the quote, and told them I would be there in about 10 minutes.

As CheapoVegas notes at the head of their review, the front entry of The Plaza has been in a number of movies, but the camera usually stops there. The casino, despite a recent re-theming with the new logo and a touch of has a lived-in feel, and it attracts low-rollers looking for an accessible lounge act, cheap eats, and a predictable, inexpensive room. They also have a striking domed restaurant that has likewise been featured in movies (Robert DeNiro and Sharon Stone have a contentious dinner date there in Casino). Frankly, I had gotten 8 hours of sleep in 2 days, and my fuse was running out quickly, so my biggest priority was finding a room in which to drop my bags and a bed on which to pass out.

Check-in at the Plaza was swift, and the room, up on the 16th floor, offered a great view of the Las Vegas Strip from the north — I looked forward to seeing it at night — as well as the mountains to the west of the city. The furniture was plain, with only a dresser, a nightstand, and a table with no writing desk, but the table was actually more usable than the ones in the Golden Nugget's rooms, because it came with a real chair, not a cushioned piece of furniture that can't be pulled up under a desk or table. Instantly I knew it would have been perfect for the laptop, but considering the change in venue, I would have been concerned about securing it in their vault. (The safe deposit boxes didn't look like they would hold a 17" PowerBook.) Still, it would be just right for scrawling notes for this very blog (some of which I have drawn upon as I've been going here).

By this time it was nearly 3 p.m., or 6 p.m. by my reckoning, so I didn't do anything all that elaborate for the rest of the day. I walked around the Plaza casino for a bit, resisted the urge to sign up for one of the nightly poker tournaments, wandered over to Binion's (where the World Series of Poker began and, until recently, was held each summer), and got a hero at the Subway downstairs. I wish I could tell you that I then proceeded to tear up the local rounders in a knives-bared no-limit hold'em match, but sadly, I returned to the room and wrote while eating. I don't like to dive right into gambling the first day I'm in Las Vegas. I'm tired from travel, acclimating myself to the local time, and besides, I had just faced down the January jinx, and the games aren't going anywhere.

I would seek them out soon enough the next day.

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