Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lovin' Laughlin, Part 1

Ever been to Laughlin, Nevada? Well, neither had I. 

Laughlin is located in the very southern tip of Nevada. Arizona is just across the Colorado River, and it's probably within shouting distance of California, too.

 It's not the first place on the map that I would have thought to visit.  But it was part of a fun Southern Utah/Las Vegas/Laughlin road trip for my daughter, Amy, and me.

Thompson Pecan Farm, Hurricane, Utah
Our first day, I picked Amy up at her apartment in Provo and we kept driving until we got to Hurricane, about a half hour from St. George, at 2 p.m.  For awhile now, I've wanted to do a story on Thompson's Pecan Farm, as it's one of just three Utah pecan farms, and the only one that sells its nuts locally.

After the interview, we had lunch/dinner at Texas Roadhouse, one of Amy's favorites.  Then we drove around Dixie State College, now Dixie State University. Amy and I both attended there, and the campus has changed a lot since I graduated in 1975!  We stopped at Amy's favorite spot — Maverik — so she could get her Dr. Pepper fix.

We also stopped at the Lock Your Love Gate.  In a sentimental tradition, sweethearts buy metal locks, etch their initials or a message on them, and lock it on a gate in front of a house.

When I heard about it, I thought "lock" included a lock of someone's hair. But no. Just metal locks, that you can buy at nearby shops.  I guess it's a good little money-maker for the lock shops. 

We left  St. George while it was still daylight, as I didn't want to drive the canyon in the dark. By the time we got to the Golden Nugget, the sun had set and the bright lights of Las Vegas were beckoning.  We relaxed in the third floor swimming pool, reserved for those over 21. No splashing kids!  We thought about going shopping on Fremont Street, but the crowds and general craziness changed our minds. 

The next morning we swam  in The Tank, a pool that has a large tank with sharks in it.  We went down the waterslide that shoots you through a glass tube in the tank, so you supposedly can feel like you're right there with the sharks. Both times, I was going so fast that I didn't see anything but dark blurs as I passed the sharks.  Jaws? I would have never seen him comin.'  It was really cool watching the scuba divers cleaning the tank as the sharks swam around them. Hazardous duty?

Our $67 room special included a buy-one-get-one-free buffet breakfast, so that's where we went for a hearty econo-meal to start our day.  Bacon, sausages, chicken fried steak, cereal, all kinds of fruit and pastries, and even a salad bar awaited us. Iceberg lettuce is now the breakfast of champions!

We drove to The Strip, as Amy wanted to stop at the Coca Cola Store and the M & M Store.  Being a busy Friday afternoon, we sat in a lot of traffic and waded through a lot of crowds to get there. I was hoping to find a replacement for the vintage Tab glass that my Deseret News co-worker, Dennis Lythgoe had given me.  It was a running joke when I was a die-hard 2-can-per-day Tab drinker. The glass got chipped a while ago.  Although I gave Tab up for the caffeine-free Diet A&W, I still wanted to find a replacement one for old times' sake.  But, it was not to be. In all the bazillion items of Coke memorabilia -- salt and pepper shakers, plates, earrings, you name it — I couldn't find any products honoring Coke's hot-pink stepsister, Tab.  But I was able to buy a Tab at the fountain drink area, where you can sample a huge variety of different soft drinks from around the world, and different flavor shots in Coke products.  I got a shot of raspberry in my Tab, which made it taste a lot like cough syrup and reminded me why I gave up drinking Tab. Amy was less-than-impressed with the flavor shot that made her Mr. Pibb overly sweet.  Better luck next time!

We went next door to the M&M store with its giant wall of candy. Interesting how there were were hundreds of people mobbed together, waiting in line to buy the same candy that they could buy for a lot less in their hometown supermarket. These M&Ms came in specific flavors and colors, but still... 

It was on to Laughlin.  The 50-60 miles between Henderson and Laughlin are a lonely stretch of country.  I don't think I'd like to get car trouble out there. There are some canyon curves just before you get  there, and then you see it — a row of casino/hotels and palm trees along the Colorado River.  
A statue of Don Laughlin greets drivers turning onto Casino Drive.  Back in the 1960s he flew over the area, which was mainly a boating and fishing spot with an 8-room motel. Laughlin saw the possibilities, and bought the motel. His family lived in four of the rooms and he rented out the other four. Today, in his 80s, he lives in one of the penthouses at the top of his Riverside hotel and casino, with a roof helicopter pad so he can take a spin whenever he wants. 

View from our hotel room at the Aquarius.
They say "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," but not so in Laughlin, according to Meg McDaniel of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "What happens in Laughlin, everybody knows about it, because this is a small town."

We stayed at the Aquarius.  Yes, when you first walk in, the cigarette smoke of the casino fills your nostrils. But the hotel room seemed a world apart, with the floor-to-ceiling window offering a nice view of the  Colorado River.

We had dinner  the Aquarius' Italian-themed restaurant, Vineyard Ristorante, where I had moist,  tender halibut crusted with panko and crab ($27). I think it was the best-prepared halibut I can remember.

Tim Abrams, food & beverage director at the Aquarius.
 I loved the crispy fried kale, broccolini and patty pan squash that came with the dish.   When I talked to Tim Abrams, the Aquarius' food and beverage director, he said he has a good relationship with their suppliers who bring their seafood in from Alaska, because they go through so much of it in their restaurants.  On a weekend, the Windows on the River buffet will use over 800 pounds of snow crab legs and an awful lot of shrimp.  They order it six months in advance to get a good price.
He also told me how Laughlin has two changing demographics that influence their menus.  In the winter, the senior "snowbirds" come in their RVs and fifth wheels and stay in the trailer parks. They like comfort food such as pot roast, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, or pork chops.
In the summer, the boaters come to enjoy the river and Lake Mohave. Abrams said they are usually younger and have more adventurous palates.

Amy had chicken Parmesan ($19), and was impressed with the juicy chicken breast and the flavorful marinara sauce and melted mozzarella.

Really, we shouldn't have ordered dessert, but the server brought out a cart that displayed all of them, and they looked so tempting!  Amy had a flavorful apple pie  and I had a rich, creamy Oreo cheesecake. I took photos, but they don't do these desserts justice, so I chose not to post them.

Feeling a little motivated due to that indulgence, I hit the gym soon after dinner for a little biking and weight training. Ironically, you have to walk past the hotel's McDonald's to find it.   It's a well-equipped facility with treadmills, bikes, weights, mats, exercise balls, etc.   On a Friday night, I don't think the hottest ticket in a casino town is the gym. Fine with me to have it all to myself!

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