Chasing the American dream at the Aria Hotel and Casino

by Sonja Stark on October 27, 2014

Las Vegas Sign

“We can’t stop here, this is bat country!”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I’m remembering famous quotes from the satirical 1970′s novel while working in Las Vegas this week and it makes me smile. The metaphoric American dream is still being chased by millions who come to Sin City, with or without the profuse drug use, while consumerism and excess are still king.

“No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.”

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I arrived too early for my reservation at the lavish, sprawling Aria Hotel and Casino so I find a comfortable corner in front of Jean Georges Steakhouse with wifi access and dim lighting. My nest isn’t far from a swinging nightclub where dozens of provocatively dressed girls await entry. Those exiting, usually coupled with an equally inebriated stranger, stagger in my direction, ask something indistinguishable and then wander away.

Down the hall the droning melancholy of slot machines, poker tables and roulette wheels fuse with low lying clouds of cigarette smoke and open-containers. The gambling culture is so engrained that the minute you land at McCarran airport, you can make a bet or continue in a taxi via a video monitor and not miss a beat as you walk into the hotel lobby.

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The Aria hotel is a living, breathing organism. It doesn’t sleep so neither do I.

The entrance to the Cirque de Soleil show called Zarkana features high-flying acrobats, aerialists and jugglers. Commissioned works by famous artists like Maya Lin and Jenny Holzer (a Capital Region resident) hang from the ceiling or are projected onto walls. Some of the worlds best chefs and finest restaurateurs grill up dishes with extra doses of quality and innovation.

Aria Hotel and CasinoThe Aria hotel opened in 2009 and unlike Fear’s counterculture protagonists – Duke and Dr. Gonzo – these decadent five-star rooms are not something to destroy. When the sun breaks my room is available. It ‘greets me’ when I enter with heavy curtains that automatically part to showcase a spectacular view of Red Rock in the distance and the still teeming metropolis below. A modern touch-screen panel controls the lighting, temperature, tv and music.

I flop onto a super-soft mattress with crisp, mildly scented pillows. Unlike the casino and promenade, my room is perfectly quiet and I let the wired characters that roam freely many floors below melt into the ether. For now, this is my American dream come true.

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Shell shocked in Jamaica

by Sonja Stark on October 26, 2014

Kristie, a small town wife with a marginal accent from her native Arkansas, had planned on celebrating her and her husband’s 25th anniversary in Jamaica. The two of them needed a vacation away from the children and Montego Bay was the place. They walked the serene gardens, swam in the Caribbean sea and tempted themselves with a thrill ride on a Jamaican bobsled. All was going better than planned until they got to the airport for their return flight home.

“Sir, Do you own a rifle?” asked the airline security.
“No, I have a shot gun at home,” he replied.
The security staff then reached into the shoulder bag that had just passed through the metal detector and pulled out a cylindrical rimmed cartridge. To the trained eye it was obvious that the round was for recreational or sport hunting… but that didn’t matter.

Kristie’s husband, once a U.S. Marine, used the bag last during a target shooting trip in the dessert a few months ago. One small, light-weight, relatively insignificant piece of ammunition must have been lodged in the corner of the bag and it went unnoticed. After all, the bag made it all the way to Jamaica without triggering any suspicion.
The Jamaican security pulled him out of the line explaining the gravity of the situation. This was serious. Ignorance is not bliss and in this case his apologies and pleas were met with a humiliating walk to jail. He would miss his flight and a hefty fine would be imposed. United Airlines offered little in the way of details but Kristie was told to board the flight home (without her husband) and contact a lawyer and the U.S. Embassy as soon as she was stateside.

This lamentable story was repeated to me while aboard a red-eye to Las Vegas with Kristie sitting right behind me. And, I thought spilling a full can of soda and ice on my crouch while wedged between two sleeping strangers was intense. Instead of getting hysterical or emotional, our female heroine remained calm and welcomes any advice and guidance. Understandably, she agonizes over the long-term consequences of ever traveling again once this matter is resolved, of which, she is certain it will be.
In the meantime, I posted this blog in hopes that should anyone reading it with a better understanding of these sticky situations might reply. Let’s hope somebody does.

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Grapes to glass in Hermann, Missouri

by Sonja Stark on October 21, 2014

Grape Harvester at Stone Hill Winery

Harvesting Grapes

Missouri has a whopping 126 wineries in the state and to keep up with supply and demand, wineries invest heavily in state-of-the-art machinery. Faster than hand-picking (nearly 10-times faster), this straddling monster is called a Grape Harvester and can strip a row of purple fruit in seconds. To see it in action is hypnotic.

Stone Hill Winery in the northeast region of Missouri demonstrated this quite well for our cameras. We got lucky too. Because of the formidable weather last week the remaining harvest was delayed just long enough for us to get to Hermann and document the activity.

The Grape Harvester moved up and down rows of bountiful trellises literally shaking the profits off the vine and onto conveyer trays, cups and belts and eventually into a catch bin. Field hands are still very much needed. Depending on the pitch of the hill or the spacing between rows or the variety of grapes, we saw as many as 10 laborers working frantically in teams to finish the workload.

CrusherAfterwards, we watched a forklift empty loads of wooden barrels into a silver hopper called the Corkscrew Crusher. We were nostalgically hoping to see a look-a-like Lucille Ball doing the iconic grape-stomping dance. But, romantic images of purple-stained toes hoisting overflowing juice buckets is no more. The Crusher can process hundreds of pounds of grapes in minutes. It separates the stems and then punctures the skin so that the pulp and juice turns into a soupy mixture that can be fermented.

There are several more stages before an actual glass of wine can be served but I’m getting a little thirsty and my time in Missouri is sadly coming to a close. For more information, visit: Stone Hill Winery and the Missouri Wines website.

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He’s the Wurst: a sausage maker in rural Missouri

by Sonja Stark on October 18, 2014

Wurst Haus

Wurstmeister Mike Sloan rushes to the front door when he sees new customers entering.

“Welcome to the Wurst Haus! Follow me for a sample of the best sausage in Missouri!” he proudly proclaims.

Everyone hurriedly surrounds a metal tray dressed with hanging links of smoked bratwurst, a tip jar and bottles of hand-batched wurst soda. Sloan cuts up bite-size morsels for everyone to feast on. He wears a small microphone to amplify his voice as he describes the ingredients.

“Try the Pineapple and Bacon bratwurst! You’re going to love our Bloody Mary Bratwurst! Oh, and now, how about a few forks of our Caramelized Pear and Gorgonzola Bratwurst!”

The restaurant and gourmet food store used to be struggling NAPA Auto Parts store in the middle of Hermann, Missouri but in 2011, Sloan revamped the brick warehouse into a smorgasbord of flavors – 46 to be exact. The menu on the chalkboard hanging over the glass display case reads much higher though.

Germans have a special bond with sausage, no different than, say, a Japanese sushi chef has with raw fish or an Italian pizza man with dough. Sloan has been curing, drying and smoking ground meat since he was a young boy growing up with parents who also owned their own store. Blutwurst, liverwurst, bierwurst, currywurst: you name the “wurst” and Sloan makes it the best.

For more information, visit: http://www.hermannwursthaus.com/

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Hermann, Missouri; cradle of the wine industry

by Sonja Stark on October 15, 2014

Hermann MissouriFounded by Germans in 1837, Hermann sits in a valley popularly known as the romantic Rhineland of Missouri. Tucked away on the longest river in America, early residents quickly took advantage of the sunny weather and fertile soil for growing grapes. The rocky nourishing dirt and steep slopes proved perfect for making award-winning white, light and sweet wines.

I’m even told that during the Civil War, the region ranked as the number one producer of wine in the nation. Today, Hermann holds the distinction of being one of two of America’s first ‘Viticultural Areas’ in the country. The cradle of the wine-growing industry is where I’m off to tomorrow afternoon.

I’ve been here twice before but never during Oktoberfest, the town’s most popular time of year. Every weekend in October, the region kicks up their clogs to traditional customs like beer gardens, polka bands and salty pretzels. Historic Bed-and-breakfasts and inns are filled to capacity. The underground cellars of famous wineries like Stone Hill, Hermannhof, Adam Puchta and Oak Glenn offer intimate tastings led by renowned wine-making pioneers.

Follow along this weekend as I showcase the Old-World charm of Hermann’s many wineries, restaurants, shops and museums. Or, visit “Experience Hermann” and plan your visit before the end of the month.

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Exploration Day: Climbing our country with foreigners

by Sonja Stark on October 13, 2014

Black Mountain

Black Mountain

Call it Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day or Exploration Day but despite the mixed legacy of Christopher Columbus, 1492 marked the beginning of trans-Atlantic journeys to the New World for millions. The age of discovery is still alive and well climbing in the Adirondacks on this beautiful holiday weekend.

It’s chief leaf-peeping season in Saratoga County. Brilliant shades of orange, yellow, gold and red dominate the Lake George area. At the summit of Black Mountain, on the east side of the lake, you’ll be greeted by a colorful views stretching in all directions including a ranger’s cabin, fire tower, random antennas and working solar panels.

As timing would have it, we (George, Mutti and little Renee) paired up with a diaspora of political science majors from all over Europe and Asia. Some were out of breath and panting, others had found their hiking rhythm and nearly all neglected to remember hiking sticks or comfortable hiking boots.

What they did bring were items from their home countries. The Czech Republic students proudly unfurled their nation’s flag in the wind. The Brits quenched their thirst with bottles of homegrown hops. And, the Chinese students nearly lost their balance on the cliffs taking countless selfies. Climbing the ‘daks brings out the adventurous spirit of all nationalities.

Black Mountain

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