Last November in Pursuitist, I wrote about my experience with my own family when they came with me on a short trip to the luxurious Grand Del Mar, now the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, near San Diego, California.
It was a meaningful trip with my son, his wife and their two boys, ages four and six. Though I have been a travel journalist for many years, I had never taken family on any assignments. But they were an engaged family, one that included their boys in many activities. My article, called The Gift Of Family Friendly, explored this gift as we experienced the beauty of this resort and beach destination. I have recently done this again, with the same family but in a very different destination – Las Vegas.
There are many who believe Las Vegas would be the dead last place to take children, as there is gambling, and adult carousing from night ‘til morn. But, as I have written extensively about Las Vegas, with its MGM Resorts, spas, its diverse City Center luxury, exceptional celebrity chefs, shows at Cirque de Soleil, at Smith Center, and exhibits at the Bellagio Gallery Of Fine Art, I know there is a side to Las Vegas that is more nuanced, cultural, and educational – one that would be of interest to families with inquisitive, young children.
So, while my son’s wife was at a two day dental conference at ARIA, my son, grandsons and I had the time to explore much of what makes Las Vegas more than a night town. It is also a a day town, a place where children can become engaged, and ultimately enchanted with this desert destination.
The first day and evening was one that James and his boys won’t forget, as they had never seen dolphins up close. Our first stop was the Dolphin Habitat, right outside the Mirage Hotel. This Habitat is part of a larger environment. Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden.
The Dolphin Habitat was a perfect experience for two boys ages 5 and 7, who had seen fish and marine mammals only in aquariums. It was also helpful that two years before, I had the experience of swimming in the Dolphin Habitat pools with a dolphin named Oswald. The boys had a picture of me with Oswald in their room at home.
The Habitat is a 2.5-million-gallon home to a family of Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins. Its purpose is to provide a nurturing environment for dolphins, as well as to educate the public about marine mammals and their environment – including their role in the ecosystem.
The Dolphin Habitat is both an educational and research facility, where guided tours are conducted throughout the day. And, part of the these can involve children being allowed to feed and touch the Dolphins. These marine mammals weigh about 350 pounds, so when they slide up on the feeding ledge, my grandsons could actually see how large they were. One was a little hesitant; the other had no problem feeding squid to the Dolphin, this time named Maverick.
After their pictures were taken, they went to see some tigers and lions in the Secret Garden, all of whom were sleeping in the hot July sun, but the boys always returned their conversations to Maverick and his friends. Neither could believe they had actually touched and fed Maverick. “He felt like cool rubber!” one said. “And he talked! He made squeaking noises,” said the other.
Later on, in the early evening, my daughter-in law-joined us and we went to dinner at Lago, a new Julian Serrano restaurant at Bellagio. From ARIA, we traveled on the ARIA Monorail, that we picked up right outside the resort. The boys had not been on a monorail before, and found it fabulous. From ARIA, the train stopped at Crystals shopping, then to Monte Carlo, then to Bellagio. All free, the experience lasted only six minutes, unfortunately for the boys.
But, I had promised them a surprise at dinner, and with the location of Lago, the great new Julian Serrano restaurant at Bellagio, it was delivered.
Lago is a new Italian, small plate restaurant right next to the Bellagio Fountains. My son. daughter-in-law, and boys, had never seen the famous fountains before. And so close! Our table was outdoors, and all that separated us from the fountains was perhaps 30 feet, and a glass wall. We had a perfect view. The boys stood at the wall, and couldn’t believe their eyes; the fountains rose and fell, all in a glorious symphonic synchrony. The music was I recall, an interesting combination of contemporary and classical. It was amazing, especially for those who had never seen such things.
And, as for Lago, so many kindnesses – the Lago wait staff were understanding about hungry children – they brought out a small pizza for the boys within minutes after we ordered. Our food was spectacular – Vitello Tonnato, a filet mignon with Gorgonzola, papardelle ragu, red wine risotto, the hungry boys and adults ate everything. And every ½ hour, we were treated to the spectacular fountains dancing on the cool, evening desert wind. “ Look!” said Ro the younger, “A rainbow!” And there one was, dancing up and down inside one of the fountains.
But the evening did not end there. We still had one more thing to do, and again, it was something I had done (twice) before. This was something every child or childlike person would remember: the Dessert Tower at Sensi.
Sensi is an exceptional Asian Pan Fusion restaurant at Bellagio, whose Executive Chef is Royden Ellamar. I interviewed him before, and found him to be deeply dedicated to the perfectibility and soul of his cuisine. He has an open kitchen at Sensi, and is usually there, overseeing and often working the kitchen. The Dessert Tower is one of a kind – a literal tower of different flavored ice creams, sherbets, various small cakes, tiramisu, and other confection perfections.
The family, including my daughter-in-law the dentist, were dazzled. Even though it was late, we indulged in these great desserts. A special treat was having the family meet Chef Roy, who came out to greet us after we had pretty much finished the Dessert Tower. “ It’s AWESOME,” said Rohan, after eating a combination mango/coconut sorbet, and two home made white chocolate truffles.
The next day was just as memorable as the first. After a great AM swim at one of the ARIA pools, where the boys pretended to be Dolphins, swimming underwater and talking by squeaking, we went to the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. Again, it is an exceptional educational and research platform-based aquarium and habitat for fish and other living species.
Completed at a cost of nearly $60 million, the fully themed facility was designed with the idea of immersing visitors into this cool, underwater world, far distant from where they actually are, in the 2000-foot altitude of the Mojave Desert. In this place, the boys saw a diverse cross-section of aquatic creatures, including 15 species of shark along with exotic fish, reptiles and sea turtles. Even though there was a Touch Pool experience, the boys didn’t touch. They loved the two walk-through tunnel exhibits, giving them a true diver’s view of the quiet blue, underwater world. But most especially, they spent much time with the translucent, fluorescent jellyfish, looking like parts of a rainbow, swimming silently in their huge habitat.
Upon seeing a Sand Tiger Shark that swam close to us, one of the boys said, “ That shark has bad teeth.” The other said, “ That’s because he doesn’t brush every day.” My daughter in law, still at the Dental conference, would have been so happy.
And all the time, Ro was taking pictures with his father’s IPhone
The quiet blue world became the ultimate contrast to what we would next experience, which would be my last with them, as I had to return home late that evening. We returned to ARIA, our home base, to see the Cirque de Soleil production of Zarkana.
Zarkana by Cirque du Soleil, it said in the program, is “a spirited journey through an abandoned theater where an extraordinary circus comes back to life. Populated by a motley collection of off-the-wall characters and incomparable acrobats, Zarkana is a visual vortex set in a twisted acrobatic fantasy universe where, little by little, chaos and craziness give way to a true celebration.”
Though I had seen this show two years before, I had remembered a few things, but not the multiplicity of visual dance, aerial gymnastics, juggling, sand painting and song. I watched the boys as they looked in absolute wonder of the combined color and movement of what was going on in front of them. Priceless. Actually, the 36 hours, helping to expand children’s experiential horizons in a city known for other things, was priceless also.