Saturday, March 22, 2008

Alpine Adventures, Hooray!

I was beginning to worry. As many of you know, Miles loves cold weather and snow. That's the appeal of coming to Switzerland -- and the appeal of coming here in winter.

So imagine our consternation when, while all has been lovely, most everything we'd seen for seven days looked lush and green like this:

Cute, right? But not what we bargained for. So as we made our way counter-clockwise around this clock-crazy nation, I realized our last chance would be to go high into the Alps in a southern region known as the Valais. I booked us a room via Expedia at what I hoped would be a snowy chalet called Hotel de la Foret in a region known as Crans Montana.

We got there late on Thursday evening and found, again, no snow. But we were also up in ski country, so we figured Friday would entail a gondola ride up to a ski chalet or something.

Then, on Friday, we woke up, pulled back the curtains and...could not see a darned thing! Total white-out. When it calmed down a tad, this is what we could photograph from our balcony:

To give you some idea how fast and furiously the snow was coming, this lump below was our car -- after Miles had dug it out once.

We ended up hiking into the town a couple miles away for brunch. It looked like this...

Here's Miles in his winter gear...

We weren't originally supposed to stay at the Hotel de la Foret for two nights, but the snow made it worth it and impossible to do anything else. It did taper off by evening, and here's ol' Smitty waving as he works on digging out our car again just so the overnight freeze doesn't make it even more difficult...

And this was what we could not see all Friday...

Nice moon, no? Miles clearly did a nice job with the car...

Then here's what that whited-out view looked like Saturday morning after that storm...

Of course this all made Miles gleeful...

So we got in our trusty little Opel Meriva after a quick photo...

...and began the alleged five-hour drive back to Zurich. Except that we had to go east and then north through the Alps. Street signs were covered in snow, the Fodor's guide was relatively useless and cars were flying all over the place. Including ours.

We planned to take something called the Grimselpass. Except that the road instead led us to a dead-end of a ski resort. So we asked a nice couple sitting on a bench enjoying the sun and they explained that the road passes were closed to drivers -- and would be until, uh, May.

No, we had to put our car on a train and go through the mountains. Literally. See this is the train...

...and these are all the cars that have to be loaded into that trailer thing in front of the train. (Ours is the middle first car after waiting through three cycles and paying our $30 passage.)

The thing is, nobody prepared us for what would happen once we were inside the mountain. Having been instructed to turn the engines and lights off, we found ourselves in a pitch-black tunnel for at least a half hour. I had time, so I took this picture...

Miles was a little spooked. He complained it was claustrophobic. Oddly, Miles does not suffer from claustrophobia. But whatever. Mostly, I napped and had snacks.

Oh, I also got this photo...

Once we got through the mountain, the ride back to Zurich was uneventful and the roads vastly easier to navigate. We checked back into the Hotel Neufeld, which upgraded us to this huge suite for no evident reason. It had a corner balcony from which we could see this...

So now it's time for bed. We fly back to Vegas, via Atlanta, early in the morning. We have blog posts to come on our food adventures, on Swiss cars, on odd signs and more. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Swiss-Vegas: The Overflow Lot

Here's some Swiss-Vegas stuff that came up after I wrote my Weekly column...

Blue Man Group, Live at Luxor, Victorious at Venetian and... Gauche en Geneve?

We passed through the French city of Evian and look what we found...

This isn't really fair, except that I liked these pix and they had a vaguely Vegas air to it, a stripper joint called Moulin Rouge...

When we finally made it to the Swiss Alps on Thursday for a two-night stay, of course we came across this casino in town called Crans-Montana. Yes that's Smitty...

They were more lax about letting me shoot pix inside...

And, making my heart and sweet tooth gleeful, they had these bowls of strangely delicious green-apple chewy candy around the place...

Switzerland: The Las Vegas Spectacular

Here's this week's Las Vegas Weekly column...illustrated! Keep in mind, it was written on Monday. A full week of Swiss travels came after this...

It's a Vegas World: We Just Travel In It

As I type, I am in the central-European equivalent of an Econolodge in some quaint southeastern Swiss town called Fribourg on a week’s vacation and anniversary celebration with my partner Miles. The hotel clerk barely spoke enough English for us to get a couple of extra pillows, we spent much of the afternoon lost without a map in the winding countryside between here and the capital, Bern, and my partner’s one true wish at the moment is that someone serve him a drink with some ice cubes.

And yet, as far away as we are from most of our creature comforts and all that’s familiar to us, I am looking out the window and there it is: Las Vegas. Or some derivative thereof.

It must be some cosmic funny, but this room faces the side of the Casino de Fribourg, its name edited into the classic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign in a way it’s certain Betty Willis never expected. There’s an advertisement for a slot-club card and the promise of “jeux et spectacles,” or games and shows. Heck, they even unintentionally evoke Steve Wynn in the use of the term “le reve,” as in the promise of “the getaway of your dreams.”

We could hardly resist, of course. Okay, we were really hungry, and it seemed like the only place open for dinner when we arrived last night for our two-night stay in these parts. So off we went to the exciting home of “more than 100 slots” and a few table games. When you enter, you show your carefully scrutinized ID, and then you’re encouraged to pick a metal key out of a large red box. If your key opens a nearby door, you win something. Nobody would say what, and nobody won while I stood watching.

We didn’t stay long. We walked around the casino and threw a couple of francs into the machines; they still use coins here, and the machines still gobble your money before you can figure out what represents a win on the same themed five-reel slot games. The booklet about the slot club was especially entertaining; we learned that 300,000 player points earns you a GPS device and upcoming shows here include a Chinese country-western singer and a tribute band that’s “the closest thing to ABBA.”

Then we moved on to the horrid-looking restaurant, where Casino de Fribourg’s Vegas showed in their attempt to gouge for food. The menu was a simplistic offering of meat and pasta, none of which was less than about $25 per entrée. An “offre special Americaine” was a seeming steal at about $28 for a 200-gram ribeye in barbecue sauce, baked potatoes (spelled “backed”) and a veggie medley. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but we’re counting our pennies on this trip, and this place didn’t seem like the occasion to splurge, so we drove over to the McDrive—really, that’s what they call it—for Big Macs instead.

Amusingly, Casino de Fribourg was the second gambling joint we saw that day. The first was Grand Casino Luzern, which loomed over the water at Lake Luzern in central Switzerland.

We tried going in but found that entrance cost 10 Swiss Francs, or about $9, although we would’ve gotten a Lucky 5-Franc token to play with on one of the 245 slots. We had to leave anyway when I tried to shoot a photo into the casino, unaware that this was illegal.

I did grab a couple of matchbooks on my way out. (Oh, and did I mention I also made off from Casino de Fribourg with a little change bucket as a souvenir?)

That wasn’t the end of our Vegas-related thrills. On a public bus, an advertisement pasted in the window shilled for an upcoming performance of a four-female group called The Acapickels and Orchestra Go To Las Vegas. See for yourself at

One night in Zurich, a German variety show played on the TV in our restaurant. The first act was the stars of the Berlin production of Mamma Mia! doing “Dancing Queen” in their outlandish finale garb.

And the second? None other than ex-Planet Hollywood star Hans Klok, still running as fast as he can around the stage in flouncy shirts to create the illusion of an exciting magic act. Weirder yet, suddenly Pamela Anderson was onstage with him here, too. Presumably this was recorded back when the two were something of a, uh, Vegas item. The banter was in German, so it was hard to tell.

Nowhere we go are we immune to our hometown influence. Every time we tell new acquaintances where we live, just the utterance of the words “Las Vegas” sends an electric pulse coursing through the room.

My favorite? I went to the Swiss parliament in Bern to interview a prominent legislator for a piece I’m working on during this trip for The New York Times. He was excited to be interviewed by that newspaper, but he became positively delirious when I mentioned I hailed from Vegas.

“Vegas! Oh, I love Las Vegas!” he chirped.

Had he ever been?

“Once, long, long ago.” His French accelerated beyond my comprehension, so a fellow journalist helping to translate explained that the legislator had come to the U.S. on holiday after college. He and his friends bought a $500 junker and circled our land. The highlight, even back in 1985? Vegas. I asked where he stayed.

“The Moulin Rouge,” he replied.

Miles and I weren’t even sure whether that place was open as a hotel in 1985, but the legislator wanted to keep chatting about what a great time he had, to the point that I needed to return the conversation to the business at hand.

It was enough to remind us that if we want a vacation free of Vegas chit-chat, we might be best off staying home.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

If Everything That Can Go Wrong Does...

...then start over.

At least that must be what the MGM Mirage folks are thinking. So they have that big Bellagio blackout in 2004, then their reservation system goes berzerk at several resorts, then they have a car bombing at Luxor, then they have a shooting in the New York-New York casino, then a handful of construction folks die on the CityCenter site, then the Monte Carlo catches fire, then Ricin Man's relative ends up having stayed at the Excalibur. Or somesuch order. I'm a little too tired right now to get the chronology right.

And then a transformer explodes and they're back to a power outage. Wow.

Also wow is that, yet again, I'm on the road when some sort of disaster strikes the Strip. I might just be MGM Mirage's good-luck charm.

Miles and I were actually about to fall asleep in Fribourg, Switzerland when my cell buzzed with a call from the editor of a national publication. We didn't answer -- that would've cost a bundle -- but I did head News.Google.Com and saw the blackout in the news. Happily, it all ended quickly with nobody hurt -- although I'm sure they're comping those folks stuck in the elevator.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Plaza NOT On Hold?

After I posted this about the Plaza being on hold, with the indication coming from a Israeli newspaper report being picked up by the respected investment house Wachovia in an investment note, I received a note from Plaza spokeswoman Michelle Tsang containing this statepemtn from Mike Naftali, president of ELAD Group:

“There is no credibility to the rumor that The Plaza project is on hold. We are forging ahead as planned and on Wednesday, March 19, the entitlement for The Plaza project will be on the county commissioner agenda. ELAD IDB, LLC is still on board for bringing one of the most luxurious mixed-use properties to the Las Vegas Strip.”

So which is it? I tend to take the word of the president of the company. And the Israeli newspaper referenced by the investor note is in Hebrew, so I can't check. Anyone want to go search Yediot Ahronot for us and tell us what the original story might have said?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Swiss Story 3: Everything Old Is Still Old

The thing about going from the U.S. in general and Vegas in particular to a place as ancient as central Europe is that the perspective of history is totally skewed. This... 42 years old and we think of it as aged. But here, this...

...was first constructed in some form 1,250 years ago. Sure, the Hofkirche in Luzern was burned down in 1633 and rebuilt, but that's still some 150 years before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. And the guidebook boasts of the 80-rank organ from 1650 as one of Switzerland's finest.

That said, that leaves an awful lot of time for someone to go and put something like this right in front of the 1,250-year-old church, perhaps to be boasted about in future guidebooks as Switzerland's least fine organ...

At least Caesars got Bellagio and Mirage as neighbors. OK, and Bill's Gambling Hall and Whatever, Dude.

This isn't the only unfortunate juxtaposition we noticed. At Luzern's train station is this beautiful ancient arch...

...and they go and put this monstrosity up right next to it in the same square about a decade ago...

Doesn't really matter, though, when everywhere you look is this...

After Luzern, which had some really cute little shops along cobblestone corridors most of old Europe does, we drove to the southwest town of Fribourg to stay at a reasonably inexpensive Swiss version of the EconoLodge and explore the French region of Switzerland. On the way, it warmed Miles' heart to find something resembling a U.S. highway rest stop, less the Bob Evans or Denny's...

He was so happy, Miles finally consented to a photo for the blog, this time of our Opel Meriva...

...And he vows he will do his first-ever blog post this week on the fascinating car world of Switzerland! How kind of him to grace us with his presence, huh?

But for now, he just wants to know who he has to kill around here to get a little ice in his drink. What do the Swiss have against ice? Anyone?

Wynn on Spitzer by way of Dodd on Clinton

I suspect the Eliot Spitzer thing is pretty over over there, but this was such a funny little nugget from last week's Steve Wynn chat that I really had to get it out there.

I was curious about his take on Spitzer, who Wynn said he hadn't ever met, and he offered this anecdote about Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.:

Friess: You’re a powerful man who has everything going for you. Why do powerful men who have everything going for them do stupid things?

Wynn: [pause, deep sigh] I think, truth be known, Steve, that on the subject of sex, that one subject, there’s more hypocrisy in this world than anybody ever dreamed. ... Everybody lies about sex. This is a crack that Chris Dodd made when we were playing golf at Shadow Creek one day. We were talking about Clinton.. I said, ‘America’s got to get over vetting politicians by checking their sex life. Everybody lies about sex. Don’t go there. Men and women don’t tell the truth about the subject. Sex is sort of a weird area of human behavior. And then Chris Dodd, it as on the 18th green, made the funniest remark. He said, ‘Steve, most people lie during sex!’ That was a good one, wasn’t it?

Yes, sir. It sure is.

Plaza Put On Hold, As Wynn Predicted

We interrupt this Swiss travelogue to report breaking news this morning (OK, it's night here in Fribourg) that the planned $6 billion, 3,500-room hotel-casino supposedly to be called the Plaza across from Wynn Las Vegas is being put on hold because of the challenging lending market.

This is intriguing because sort of Steve Wynn predicted as much last week during an interview I conducted on a variety of topics. This was the best bit:

Friess: Do you have a question about whether they'll actually build that or not?
Wynn: I don't know. In this financial market, I'm hoping they do because I want a good looking neighbor. But truth be known, I'd rather have empty property than the Frontier there.
Friess: Well, they took care of that.
Wynn: It was painful. It was agony, that place. Uck.

That was on Tuesday. By the by, here's the investors' note from Wachovia today:

According to Yediot Ahronot, Israeli sponsors (Nochi Danker and Yitzhak Tshuva) for the Las Vegas Plaza (3,500-room) hotel and casino development have announced that the $6 billion (estimated all-in investment) project is on hold due to the subprime crisis in the United States. In our opinion, it will be very difficult for new gaming development projects throughout the country to obtain financing in the near term unless project sponsors are willing to significantly increase their equity contributions. The news source also stated the Plaza sponsors do not plan on engaging project financing until the subprime crisis ends. We expect land valuations to be under pressure in Las Vegas as will merger and acquisition activity throughout the gaming industry until the credit crisis abates. On a positive note, the slowing strip development in Las Vegas should provide existing Strip operators and projects currently under way (City Center, Echelon, and Encore) more time to digest both room supply and gaming floor capacity additions.

So slower growth may be good for MGM Mirage, Boyd and Wynn. I just wonder if this changes the fate of the Plaza name now...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

How Will We Know If We're Really In Switzerland?

One answer is: When you're walking down Zurich's version of Fifth Avenue, Bahnhofstrasse, and you see automated little figurines doing a jig to some yodeling above the door.

But the question also comes from the oddest thing. Three separate times in three separate locations, Miles and/or I were minding out own business when what would come on the overhead music but, uh, "How Will I Know?" by Whitney Houston. I knew that Asians were nutty about older American pop music -- Simon & Garfunkel, the Carpenters, pre-freak Michael Jackson -- but in central Europe I expected more refined and up-to-date tastes. Odd, no?

Anyhow, here below is Zurich from the top of a tower I hadn't intended to climb at Grossmunster, a Gothic church built in the 12th century. I paid the small admission for what I thought provided access to the upper seating and pulpit but actually led me inside a very narrow, winding stone stairway to the top. Miles, generally bored by scenic churches, stayed outside. (He did, to his credit, come in when I told him that some choral orchestra was about to start an impromptu rehearsal for a Bach concert the next day, so we did enjoy some surprise and free high culture.)

Below is another view. That big clock is St. Peters Kirche, a church site since the 9th century and possessor of the largest clock face in Europe. That's really a peculiar distinction, no?

So I wanted a picture, but this guy wouldn't move. Here I am saying, "Do you know who I am?" or something like that...

...and finally he got out of the shot, though his blue-sweatered friend did not...

Here is one of the more decorative shop windows on Bahnhofstrasse...

That picture, I'm told, will be especially delightful to my sister-in-law in Tampa, who is devoted to Teuscher. Also, I'm told, she's a bit mad about swans, so here's one of those, too, in the River Limmat that dissects Zurich...

So that's what we did on Saturday. We have been eating pretty uneventfully partly because it's so expensive, partly because we didn't lug any clothes here to go out in fancy company and partly because the temporary crown on the tooth I cracked open last week came right off.

But, you must be worried and wondering, haven't we indulged in some of that legendary Swiss chocolate? Well, duh. Why do you think the crown came off? (OK, my dentist is a quack, but still...)

We didn't bother with Teuschers which is, while wonderful, easy to get in America. Instead, we listened to the Fodors 07 Switzerland guidebook and stopped in at Sprungli, a landmark on Bahnhofstrasse. I regret to say that we didn't shoot any pictures of what a madhouse that place was. But here's the box we got for about $15...

...of a substantial collection of truffles and treats...

as well as these little cream-filled cookies called Luxembourgli. This was all that made it home...

And a couple more fun observations. First, we kept seeing the word "schmuck" everywhere. As in this: finally I looked it up and in German, the word actually means pretty much the opposite of the derivative, derogatory Yiddish term we use. Look it up. Basically, it means something pretty, smart, good. Fun with language!

And, here's the best weird thing we saw so far. You pee in the urinal and it lights up so you can read these ads. And this one is not in English, but I'm pretty sure I get the, uh, picture. Do you?

Nighty night!