Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Partying, working and camping

I’ve spent the past 10 days camping, partying and working in the Southwest. My trip started with camping for two days in the Grand Canyon’s north rim and two days near Lake Powell in Page, Arizona. I finished with four days in Las Vegas for the National Association of Black Journalists convention.

In these next few blogs, you’ll get to share a little of my vacation and get my tips in case you ever head this way. Tip No. 1: Don’t fly American. They’re the worst.

Partying in Rum Jungle

One of my goals in Las Vegas was to see as many spots as I could. After all, Las Vegas's Peppermill Lounge was James Funderburk’s inspiration for the fire pits at Tonic. And Sin City's Ice, now closed, was an inspiration for the Forum.

When we arrived at the door of Rum Jungle in the Palm hotel, the line wasn't short. But Creative Loafing's Carlton Hargro paid the door lady $40 bucks to let us in through the VIP line.

Rum Jungle is an uber-club.
It’s spacious and open, so you can see and be seen. When you walk inside, water glides down the front wall. Sofas and ottomans line the front section, and were perfect for escaping the crowded bar and dance floor.

A long bar split the club into two sections. On each side of the bar were sofas and booths, which seemed like VIP areas. Many partiers had bottles of champagne or liquor at their tables. Four cages containing go-go dancers hung from the ceiling. Another dancer worked the catwalk above the bar. To get to the dance floor, you had to walk past the bar and up a few stairs. Two smaller waterfall walls separated the dance floor from the other sections. Two guys played drums and percussion along with the music that the DJ spun.

The National Association of Black Journalists' task force rented Rum Jungle for Thursday’s party, so the vibe was extra-hype. In Charlotte, we have a healthy black professional party scene, but the NABJ convention draws journalists from cities that don’t. So on Thursday, hundreds of black journalists eagerly took over Rum Jungle.

My only complaint was the DJ. He played enough of a song to let you say, “That’s my s…” But then he'd prematurely start up another song. Annoying. He had deep stacks, and played everything from Luther Vandross to Stevie Wonder to DJ Unk -- but partiers didn’t get to truly enjoy his collection.

Shrimp scampi and bellydancing

When we arrived at Marrakech restaurant on Thursday night, our waiter gave each of us hand towels instead of napkins. He placed a large bowl in the center of the table. We held our hands over the bowl as he poured warm water over them.

I'd never been to restaurant so concerned about the cleanliness of their patrons’ hands. When the waiter brought our platter of shrimp scampi, the first of six courses, I understood why. He explained that we should eat the shrimp with our fingers and use the bread to soak up the butter sauce.

We dove in. The shrimp was so good, but we didn’t want to stuff ourselves with the bread. But I swear, if I had a straw I would have slurped up the butter sauce.

By the time the belly dancer jiggled from behind a curtains into the restaurant, we were on our fourth course.
When my new friend Robert first pitched the idea of going to a belly-dancing restaurant for dinner, I drooled over the idea of watching such a beautiful art form while eating. But after putting down the tasty shrimp scampi, a Moroccan salad - marinated vegetables dipped in the best hummus I’ve had ever - and lentil soup, I’d forgotten about the dancer.

The food was so good that I ran out of buttons to unbutton on my pants, but Robert’s friend Charmagne still had enough energy to shake a lil’ sumthin’-sumthin’ with the dancer. The belly dancer worked her away around the restaurant, which had about 20 customers. She smiled, winked and cajoled a stunned crowd into applauding after she did the most hypnotic hip-shimmy move. She moved so fast, yet the movement seemed subtle.

We finished our meal with well-seasoned and tender beef kabobs (tasted as good as the buffalo, and was cheaper), followed by Cornish hen and couscous (we did get a fork for the hen and dessert). We shared dessert, a pastry the size of a dinner plate that reminded me of baklava. We each also received a warm cup of mint tea.

If you go to Marrakech, slightly off The Strip, bring your appetite. Each night’s menu is set, so if you’re a picky eater this isn’t the place for you. It costs $37.

A conga line in a German restaurant

When my friends and I walked inside the cavernous Hofbrauhaus restaurant, we heard a band rocking a German song. As we sat down, members of the Rothseepower German band - many of the guys didn’t speak English - raised liter-sized mugs in the air and yelled “Ein Prosit!”

We looked around wondering what the bleep was going on.
After one bock beer and an order of brats and pretzels, I had my mug in the air yelling “Ein Prosit, oi, oi!” with everyone else. Before the night was over, a German tourist would chug a beer on stage, a conga line would snake through the restaurant, a couple of girls would join the band on stage, and we all would dance to Rothseepower singing “Proud Mary” - at our table’s request.

It was Wednesday, and my first night in Las Vegas after camping for four days. It only got better.

Buffalo meat and weak beer

If you ever go to Kanab, Utah, try the buffalo at the Rocking V Cafe on West Center Street. It’s a restaurant downstairs, and the Rafters Gallery is upstairs. I ended up joining two women -- one from New Jersey and the other (her cousin) from Florida -- who were sharing a bottle of wine and a meal.

I stopped in Kanab to get one good night’s sleep in a hotel before four nights of tent camping at the Grand Canyon’s north rim and near Lake Powell in Page, Arizona. The cousins were there because each year they bring their daughters to volunteer at the Best Friends sanctuary, an animal rescue facility. Along with walking and feeding all types of animals, the women and their kids take road trips throughout the area. They loved Zion National Park, but said the actual Salt Lake was a dried-up, fly-infested disappointment.

One of these road trips ended with the women sharing a bottle of wine at Rocking V Cafe instead of sipping ice-cold brews. While cruising through small towns and national parks, the two knocked back three Coronas and didn’t feel a thing (not something I recommend, but I’m just telling you the story).

At Rocking V, Victor Cooper, the owner’s husband, explained to my dinner partners that in Utah, the alcohol content in beer is so low it’s like drinking O’Doul’s.

Cooper, an affable guy who chatted up new and regular customers about the food and their visit to Kanab, convinced us to try the buffalo tenderloin.

I’d never eaten buffalo before. It was tender and more robust than filet mignon, but it wasn’t worth $36. Rocking V -- which reminded me of 300 East -- seemed to be the most expensive restaurant in Kanab. Most of the other places were diners or cheap Mexican and Italian restaurants.

I followed dinner with the bread pudding. Not good. To sum up: Try the buffalo; avoid the bread pudding; stick with wine; and watch out for the two crazy cousins who make Thelma and Louise look tame.

Partying at Tangerine

When we walked inside of Treasure Island hotel, a man handed us free passes to Tangerine nightclub. The line for the club stretched back into the casino area on Friday.

We hopped into the VIP line. I showed the guy my ID and he asked for my VIP card. I gave him a $20. He let us in. (I learn fast. Sookie sookie, now!)

Tangerine was a mixed bag.
The crowded dance floor dominated the club. There’s a drum kit above the bar, but no one played while we were there. Every now and then, women danced on the bar. Women also danced on platforms in the two large VIP lounge areas. Tangerine had my favorite DJ of the weekend. He knew how to mix, and spun Top 40, smatterings of rock, classic hip-hop, and hip-hop songs I’d never heard before - a rarity in today’s club scene.

But Tangerine is wannabe posh. It had the look, but the floor was sticky as heck and the people were kind of scraggly-looking.

Not craving Krave

The DJ was killing me.
During Girl Bar, a weekly lesbian party held in a section of Krave dance club (kind of like the Forum’s Pravda lounge), the DJ played “Survivor,” Janet Jackson's “All for You,” Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” and a bunch of other dusty hits over the course of at least an hour.

I finally asked if she had any contemporary music. She looked offended. Whatever.
I told her everything she was playing was at least two or three years old. She said people had been telling her that all night. Um, hello. Change your music then. She didn’t.

Her whack skills put a damper on an already weak party.
Still, the spot was cute, especially compared to the places where most lesbian parties take place. In Charlotte, we’re lucky to have the parties at Wine Up, but the other spots are booty.

Despite the bad deejaying, most of the 50-75 women in attendance got their $15 worth and danced. The partiers were a mix of locals and tourists of all ages and ethnicities. One group of women paraded around as if they were the cutest women in the spot. (They weren’t that cute, but the pickings were slim.)

Two go-go dancers worked the stage. One tried to undulate on a pole that was so rickety it looked as if it would fall over if she held it too tightly.

By the way, there are also weekly Girl Bar parties in Los Angeles, Chicago and Palm Springs. (I hope those are better than the one in Vegas.)

Lessons from camping and Las Vegas

1) Take dry ice. It lasts way longer than regular ice. The secret is to put it in a plastic bag on the bottom of your cooler, line the dry ice with regular ice, then pile your stuff on top. On a related note, if you have a choice between block and chipped ice, block lasts longer.

2) Don’t ever rent a PT Cruiser. It has to be the most underpowered car on the face of this Earth. The rental guy at Payless tried to warn me, but I’m cheap, and I figured he was trying to sell me on a pricier upgrade.

3) If you’re planning to camp somewhere new, research whether there are any state or national parks nearby. When I went to Lake Powell, I stayed at an RV campground. I basically had a big patch of hot sand in the middle of a concrete parking lot. The water in the indoor pool was greener than Kermit. (I swam anyway -- I'm preparing for a triathlon sprint.) However, 10 minutes away was Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. You literally can camp on Lone Rock Beach at the lake. I chilled there for the day. Best part was laying out on the beach. Worse part was the guy next to me blasting heavy metal from his Honda Accord. Ignorant.

4) Don’t try to drive a PT Cruiser in soft sand. I got stuck twice. The first time, a couple pushed me out. The second time, a nice guy from Utah pulled me out with his gigantic pickup.

5) It is not cheap to party in Las Vegas. You can’t take a cab ride anywhere for less than $10, including the tip. Most places charged a $15-$20 cover. And one beer cost $9. Criminal.

6) Don’t eat at the Sidewalk CafĂ© in Bally’s in Las Vegas. The food is average and the service is horrible.
7) If you have a large group in Las Vegas, the buffets are a good way to eat. They have food stations with cooks who make soups, steaks and omelets to order.