At long last, here I am in Las Vegas! My plan was to use Twitter to share the experience – for me, “what happens in Vegas” should NOT stay here – but that’s turned out to be impossible as free wi-fi is (surprisingly) impossible to find. (They must want you to focus on gambling and keep you cut off from the outside world). Thus, this late summary. Out of the dusty desert terrain below our plane, the city suddenly appeared, the big casino buildings jutting up in a row above the rest. After the bumpiest landing I’ve ever experienced, we arrived, a little shaken ‘n stirred, in Sin City. And within 30 seconds, we’d already been exposed to the two key aspects of the place – the gambling (as you enter the airport from the gangway, the first thing in front of you is a bank of slot machines!) and the heat (which pressed on on us as we walked down the gangway, and blasted us with oven-like force when we headed outside for our shuttle). A shuttle brought us to our hotel, Treasure Island – a faux “Pirates of the Caribbean” extravaganza with two full-size ships outside. Of course everything here is faux – Disney-like simulations of everything from ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, a giant circus tent, the New York skyline, the Eiffel Tower, you name it. It is a truly eye-popping triumph of authentic fakery. I got my first inkling of the incredible scale of Vegas’ architectural fancy when I took a solo stroll nearby as Christine had an afternoon nap. Directly across the street loomed the Venezia – kind of like Venice on steroids. A giant duplicate of the Campanile and Ponte Vecchio sit before a dazzlingly giant complex of buildings in a semi-Renaissance style. Except the whole thing is probably larger than all of the original Venice. Inside, I gaped up at an atrium and grand hall whose ceilings were covered with classical frescoes a la Michelangelo. Only the women in these paintings somehow looked more Venice Beach than Venice. I headed for the shopping area, rounded a corner and was stopped in my tracks. Suddenly, I was in Venice – the canal winding by complete with gondolas, time-worn buildings on each side, and a blue sky above. Except I was inside on the second floor, and the shops were glitzy high-end boutiques. I wandered around suitably dazzled before returning to our hotel. And I haven’t even mentioned the giant gold statue of those historic local legends, Sigfried and Roy. After meeting up with the rest of our group – Gary, Corrine, and Lara – we boarded The Deuce, a bus that goes up and down The Strip (and at $7 for a 24-hour pass, one of the true deals here). We headed north to Fremont Street – AKA the Fremont Street Experience. After the mega-size, Disneyland feel of the central Strip, North Vegas was actually an incredibly satisfyingly retro experience. Here was the Vegas I had seen in my mind’s eye – where the dazzle came not from elaborate pseudo-environments but from sheer acreage of blinking lights! It’s neon heaven, not only for the endless shimmering lights but also for the number of vintage neon signs that have been restored and mounted near Fremont Street in an open-air “neon museum”. It was all catnip for a retro-loving soul like me. The buildings themselves also hearken back to that mid-century Googie-style enthusiasm, all kidney-shapes and boomrangs. Of course, covering most of Fremont is an immense arched “roof” on which a series of electronic light shows play out after dark. Though it’s a totally modern touch, I liked the sense of protection it gave – a feeling that the dazzling yet charming 50’s and 60’s throwbacks below were safe from destruction and would be here to enjoy for many years to come. One more delightful surprise awaited me here in North Vegas. even though it was a “copy”. Triple George’s is an Italian restaurant just off Fremont Street where we decided to have dinner. As I entered, I got a strong sense of deja vu. It looked exactly like the legendary Tadich Grill in San Francisco, a century-old institution there which I’ve had the pleasure of dining in a couple of times. The dark wood panelled decor, the long bar/counter in front, the booths in the back, the exact layout of the whole place – it was an almost perfect replica of the original! (The one obligatory TV screen was the only concession to its actual location.) Fortunately, the food also lived up to expecttions – it was delicious. It was a great way to wrap up our first day on Vegas. There was one more thing to do, though, but luckily it was a low key relaxing thing that took place back in the comfort of Corrine and Lara’s room. This trip is really about celebrating 40th birthdays, and to kick-start the reminiscencing, Corrine had four grade-school photos turned into jigsaw puzzles which we all teamed up to solve. There was also a list of 50 trivia questions, all about the people and events of Christine, Corrine and Gary’s school days together. So, as puzzle pieces were assembled, the stories and memories tumbled forth. And since the four of them went through school together from kindergarten to high school, there was no shortage of stories to tell. I was impressed, if not a little envious- but above all I was happy to be included in the fun. I learned a lot and even got to see everyone’s high school yearbook photos! It was a great way to cap off the first night of the trip, and I know that the chance to share all those memories, and the effort Corrine put into making it happen, really meant a lot to Christine. Tomorrow: swimming, casino-hopping, and the Blue Man Group!