Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Arizona: Route 66 Gem -- Wigwam Motel

I've got a soft spot for all those mom-and-pop retro motor courts along ol' Route 66. The Wigwam Motel in eastern Arizona, just outside Petrified Forest National Park and its scenic detour through the Painted Desert, is a time-tested fave.

By the railroad tracks in the small town of Holbrook, these 1940s concrete tipis all have classic cars parked out front. Inside, you'll find some handcrafted furnishings, simple beds and challengingly small bathrooms. It's all embarrassingly endearing, especially once you find out that this humble motel is actually on the National Register of Historic Places.

Holbrook's Wigwam Motel is one of the last three remaining wigwam-style tourist villages built across the US between the 1930s and the '50s. You'll find the other cool wigwam motels in Cave City, Kentucky, and Rialto, CA. (The latter was once a down-and-out, no-tell motel with the infamous sign beckoning motorists to "Do It in a Tee-Pee," but new owners have cleaned up its act.)

And if you happened to catch last night's episode of NBC's The Great American Road Trip, a reality-TV show that I consulted for about Route 66, you'll have already gotten a glimpse of this charmer. One of the contestants said that he thought a night at Holbrook's Wigwam Motel was better than staying at a four-star spa resort in Phoenix. That made my retro Americana-loving heart sing, especially since Oprah had unfairly poo-poohed this place during her cross-country road trip in 2006.

For all you retro motel lovers out there, the last page of this month's Sunset magazine features another classic Route 66 motel, the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Beautiful!

Photo: Wigwam Motel (Sara Benson & Michael Connolly Jr.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Las Vegas: Save Money, Escape the Strip

As the mercury skyrockets over 100 degrees in Las Vegas, hotel rates on the Strip are dipping ever lower. Only $59 for splashy Planet Hollywood, $39 at the reimagined Luxor, $22 at the vintage Sahara - it's madness in my email inbox. Too bad everything else still costs more than it should, especially cocktails, dining and entertainment.

Here are 5 of my fave off-Strip escapes that'll save you serious cash:
  1. Pinball Hall of Fame - East of the Strip along Tropicana Ave., go wild playing over 200 vintage pinball, carnival-style and video arcade games, all gorgeously restored. (Yes, they've got Asteroids, Space Invaders, Tetris and Ms. Pacman, too.) Most games cost just a quarter, and all the profits go to charity. Ka-ching! And for more cheap thrills, there's a second-run discount cinema next door.

  2. Luv-It Frozen Custard - It's thicker than ice cream, and it melts more slowly, too. This old-fashioned summertime gathering spot is just off the Strip, north of the Stratosphere. Fresh flavors of the day are posted online, or just show up and order the classic Western Special Sundae with vanilla custard, pecans and hot fudge and caramel sauces.

  3. Freakin' Frog - Although microbrew and wine bars are a growing trend at casinos (think: the Hostile Grape and 32 Draft at the brand-new M Resort, Pour 24 at New York-New York), nothing beats the biggest beer bar in town. East of the Strip, near the UNLV campus, this strip-mall gem has all the microbrews you know and love (and many others you haven't tried yet) on their 7oo-plus beer menu. Swing by for free jazz shows on Tuesday nights.

  4. Noodle Exchange - West of the Strip, not too many blocks from Las Vegas' Chinatown strip malls, this Gold Coast casino eatery won't break the bank. Show up for massive $6.99 lunch specials of Chinese-American standards, or spend a little more and pick something more authentic from the pan-Asian menu, like Shanghai-style ban ban noodles, miso ramen or Hawaii-style saimin.

  5. South Point - To save money while avoiding hectic, overpriced megahotels, look south of the Strip. Rooms here are oversized, beds are heavenly, and the pool is not as mobbed (meaning you can actually swim in it, as opposed to just standing around in the water like at the MGM Grand or Mandalay Bay). Sign up for the email list to get the best discounts, like stay 1 night, get 1 free deals.
Photo: Pinball Hall of Fame (Michael Connolly Jr.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Big Sur: Visiting California Condors, Even Virtually

Chances are, the last time you heard news about Big Sur's Ventana Wilderness, it was during the wildfires of 2008, which caused landslides across Hwy. 1 and damaged critical habitat for California condors.

Not only has the Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS) rebuilt its bird banding and tracking operations on the Big Sur coast, it has also opened a brand-new visitor center at Andrew Molera State Park. At the Big Sur Discovery Center, you can learn all about the efforts of wildlife biologists and volunteers to save this endangered species. The center is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission is free.

Can't make it to Big Sur in person? The new website, MyCondor.org, lets you virtually meet wild condors, follow their life stories on the web (or Facebook, if you prefer) and get news from the MyCondor blog. Our favorite wild condor is #171, aka "Traveler" -- a feisty, independent female who can be spotted soaring over an amazing 300 square miles of rugged coastal territory.

Photo: California condor (courtesy of Ventana Wildlife Society)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Chasing Butterflies in California

If you're passing through the San Francisco Bay area or Santa Barbara, you've got amazing chances to get up close and personal with exotic butterfly species, guaranteed to bring out your inner child.

The reimagined California Academy of Sciences, which reopened in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in September 2008, gets all the hype. Its LEED platinum-certified building design includes an energy-efficient "Living Roof" of native plant species. Inside, the longest lines of visitors are found waiting to enter the four-story living rain forest, home to over 600 birds and butterflies. The terrascape impressively recreates ecosystems from Borneo to Madagascar and Costa Rica. But the jostling crowds and sky-high admission price ($25 per adult, $20 for children aged 7 to 17) are turnoffs. If you go, get there early so you can take advantage of absolutely everything the museum offers, including planetarium shows, which can sell out before lunchtime.

Far more humble, the somewhat outdated, old-school Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History actually may have its big-city competitor beat when it comes to viewing butterflies. Its "Butterflies Alive!" exhibit may be pint-sized, but you're immediately immersed in a world of flowering gardens and dozens of butterfly species, all easily identified with the interpretive field guide cards available inside the open-air exhibit. Kudos to the docents who teach everyone how to walk carefully and avoid smooshing any of the 1000 free-flying butterflies, all raised in the on-site nursery. Sure, it's not as flashy as the SF museum, but the price of admission ($10 per adult, $6 for children aged 3-12) is easier to swallow.

Photo: Zebra heliconian (Sara Benson)