August 23, 2012

Family getaway totally rewarding

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Relationships, Travel, Women at 11:13 pm by dinaheng

In a family of seven sisters, there isn’t a lot we all agree on. But when it came to planning a family reunion, most of us agreed that the best place for our girls’ weekend was Las Vegas.

Four of my sisters and our mom — who love to gamble — flew in to Sin City recently from Houston, Dallas and Austin, Texas. I took a short flight over from Los Angeles. While my gambling limit is usually $25 a day, their penchant for playing slots and table games usually scores us “free” hotel rooms and comp meals.

Some of my sisters participate in Caesars Entertainment’s Total Rewards program, a loyalty reward program that credits you for gambling, dining, buying tickets to shows, or staying at nearly 40 resorts and casinos around the country.

A quiet perk of having a Total Rewards membership is being able to work with their in-house concierge service, which offers complimentary trip planning and VIP access for groups staying at any of the nine Caesars Entertainment Las Vegas resorts. The trip planning is tailored to the occasion — whether it’s a wedding, girls getaway, or family reunion — and designed to fit your budget.

For our family reunion, we were upgraded to VIP rooms at Caesars Palace, which opened its new Octavius Tower, the resort’s sixth hotel tower, in January. Two of us stayed in Octavius, and four of us had connecting rooms in the Augustus Tower. Both towers share a private valet entrance and separate registration area.

The Octavius rooms (starting at $169 a night), are done in contemporary decor and are outfitted with the latest in tech toys, such as an auto-switching MediaHub that lets you stream direct from any smartphone, tablet or game console to the room’s 42-inch HiDef television. A mobile app lets you order room service, request amenities, and other fun things from your cell phone.

The Augustus rooms (starting at $159 a night), feature a plush chocolate brown and green color palette, and offer similar upgraded amenities in the bathroom, with a flat screen TV off the dual sink vanities and separate jacuzzi tub/shower.

Caesars Palace Las Vegas

With any girls weekend, the action starts… in the bedroom. Arriving on a Thursday night, we gathered in Mom and Karen’s room. Picture five women sprawled across two beds, a couch and a couple of chairs, kicking off their shoes and uttering a collective sigh of relief to be on vacation.

Karen, who left four kids (all under the age of 9), at home with her husband for the weekend, said the little ones weren’t upset at all that Mom was leaving for a few days.

“Hannah said, ‘Good, then we can have fun with Dad,’ “ said Karen, laughing. “I don’t know why they think they’ll get away with more things with him.”

Jane, who left two kids at home with her husband, shared a more serious story.  Her son Max, 9, had been playing baseball earlier in the week when a larger boy knocked Max down while running toward a base.

“Max got a concussion, and we had to go to the emergency room,” Jane said. “He’s going to the neurologist tomorrow to get more tests.”

It’s not easy being a mom, and as Wendy (who joined us the next morning) noted, getting away from the kids is essential to parental health.

My sister Linda and I, the single ones in the family, were happy to get away from the routine of work for a weekend. Mom was just happy to see most of her daughters together (two were unable to join us).

For dinner our first night, we went down to Rao’s, a delightful Italian restaurant modeled after its famous New York parent, a 100-year-old restaurant in East Harlem, which was once a legendary Italian neighborhood.

“They have 10 tables there, and it’s a two-year wait to get in because the regulars ‘own’ their tables and are accustomed to eating there on certain days and times,” explained our waitress Rebecca. “It’s a real family-type place.”

Rao’s at Caesars Palace

Apparently, back in the 1950s, when Uncle Vincent took possession of the restaurant in March, the Christmas decorations were still up. He decided to leave the tree and decorations in place, declaring it would be Christmas all year at Rao’s. The Yuletide theme is maintained in the Vegas establishment as well — from garlands over the bar to a tree in the foyer — making a cheerful statement about the importance of family, faith, and joy.

As for the food… it was wonderful. Being Chinese-American, we like to eat family-style, so we ordered Fritto Misto, otherwise known as deep-fried calamari ($22); Caesar Salad ($15); Spaghetti Marinara ($23); Meatballs ($16); Veal Picatta ($38); a special of Seared Shrimp over Linguine with Fresh Cherry Tomato and Basil Sauce ($36), and Peas and Prosciutto ($15).

“The peas are so good,” said Jane. “I could eat this as a dish by itself.”

Dessert was a shared order of Tiramisu, New York Cheesecake with Mixed Berries and a Peanut Butter Tart ($12 each). Needless to say, we rolled out the door more than satisfied.

Having never stayed at Caesars Palace before, we were surprised to discover how large the property is. The resort sits on 85 acres, has eight swimming pools (which range from family-friendly to European style, tops optional), and The Colosseum, which features performers like Celine Dion, Jerry Seinfeld and coming later this year, Shania Twain. We hit the casino for an hour of gambling, then gave in to jet lag and the need for sleep.

The next morning, we gathered in Mom’s room again. The talk this time was about our childhood in Houston, where we were one of the few Asian families in our largely white and Hispanic school district.

“You girls used to get picked on at school all the time,” Mom remembered. “With you older girls, we’d always write a letter to the teacher, telling them that kids were harassing you at school. With Dinah, the boys would stick bubble gum in her hair.

“With the others, they would constantly poke your legs under the table with a pencil, hit you, or pulled your hair. When Jackie got to kindergarten, she told the boy who poked her with a pencil, ‘Don’t poke me with that again. It hurts. If you do, I’ll tell the teacher on you.”

When the boy poked her leg with a pencil again, Jackie told the teacher, “If he does it again, I’m going to hit him.” She sat back down, and sure enough, the kid poked her with the pencil again.

“So Jackie hit the boy in the nose, and his nose bled,” Mom said. “The boy ran to the teacher, saying, ‘Jackie hit me.’ The teacher said, ‘Well, you deserve it.’ The next year, Jackie told Jane, ‘If anyone bothers you, you tell me and I’ll hit them for you.’ After that, no one bothered the rest of you.”

We all laughed, and Jane shared that when her son Max went to camp recently, one kid teased him with constant chants of “Ching-Chong,” until Max exploded and told him to “Shut up!” When the kid complained to the counselor, she said, “That’s what you get for calling people names.”

It’s sad to know that racism still lives, but at least — in this instance — pencil stabbing has given way to name calling.

After that discussion, we decided it was time for some retail therapy and headed for The Forum Shops. While many casinos now include shopping venues, we learned that Caesars Palace was the first one on the Strip to have retail attached to its casino.

The Forum Shops, owned and operated by Simon Property Group, is a mall of 160 shops and restaurants that boasts the world’s largest H&M. Originally featuring luxury  boutiques like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, the shops expanded to include more moderate offerings like Victoria’s Secret and Banana Republic.

Fifty of the stores participate in the Total Rewards program, offering discounts or VIP service to shoppers, as well. For shoppers with kids, there’s a free animatronic show, recreating the Lost City of Atlantis, every hour at the top of the hour near The Cheesecake Factory.

My sister Linda, who loves to shop, found a pair of silver earrings for our sister Boo (who couldn’t make the trip) at Judith Ripka with the help of client specialist Antonietta Bonfitto. “I told her I didn’t want to spend much money, and she spent a lot of time helping me,” Linda said. “She looked through everything, and was so understanding about shopping on a budget.”

After dinner, we ended the evening by popping in to see Matt Goss perform in The Gossy Room at Cleopatra’s Lounge (tickets are $40 plus fees). Goss, a singer from the U.K., riffs the legendary Rat Pack performers, wearing a Frank Sinatra-like fedora and performing standards like “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Luck be a Lady.”

Accompanied by a 9-piece band and Vegas dancers, his show gives a taste of old Las Vegas to a crowd in an intimate, packed theater. Be warned, this show is general admission, so show up early, or you’ll be left, as we were, sitting behind a column that blocked the view of the stage.

Pretty soon, it was time to hit the casino for one last round at the slot machines before going up to bed. Mom was already in bed when the rest of us trooped in. She asked if Jane, who was staying in the other tower, had gotten back to her room all right.

That’s the thing about families — no matter how old you get, Mom never stops worrying about you.

Next: Spa time makes getaway special


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