Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Las Vegas Part Three – The Grand Canyon

The variously manifested effects of the previous evening’s champagne consumption do not lend themselves to a sprightly hop from bed at 5.30am. There’s little choice in the matter however, as the ODS limo will be drawing up at 6.00am. The fact that it’s a little late is a useful problem, as it affords the opportunity to down another bucket full of coffee from the Four Seasons’ lobby breakfast-on-the-run presentation.

The dulled senses also help in MCC being able to avoid dwelling on the mounting fear of her first ever helicopter ride. Keeping her calm enough to go through with it being the reason why I’d passed on the seaplane opps in Vancouver; if that had been bumpy, she’s have bailed out of this flight for sure.

With the sun already ascended quite appreciably, it’s a short ride to Sundance Helicopters purpose-built facility on The Strip side of McCarran Airport. We are weighed in and have to stump up the ubiquitous fuel surcharge ($30pp) and have a dandy Avery label with a number written on it attached to our left breasts. Quite the Far Eastern tour group members we look. We are given a pre-flight information card and encouraged to watch the safety video playing on the plasma.

At 7am, our pilot calls our number, which constitutes the lottery draw of who we’ll be sharing the chopper with. As it turns out, it’s a friendly couple from Surrey who will be with us for most of the trip to the Canyon but, as they have booked a slightly different package, they’ll be being dropped off before we finally return to Las Vegas.

Our itinerary is booked through Viator, goes under the title ‘The Grand Canyon All American Helicopter Tour’ and is a useful 25% less than it was last year (in dollar terms) and then a bit more thanks to the strength of sterling. Quite why that still requires a fuel surcharge defeats me slightly, but ours is not to question. There’s a further 5% discount to be had by chucking ‘codesUK’ into the promotional box at checkout.

Belt pouches containing lifejackets are donned and we make our way out to the 6 seat Eurocopter Astar for a final briefing. Strapped in, headsets on and a smile and wave for the onboard camera and the rotor is being spooled up for a 6 foot hover and then careful edge forward off the H-plate and toward the taxiway. The pilot pivots the machine through 90 clockwise degrees and then we tip slightly for the Airwolf-esque take-off roll and soaring rise away from the blacktop.

This is the moment of truth as far as the less-than-confident MCC is concerned but, so far so good, as we bank East across the Southern perimeter of the airfield and set a heading for Henderson City. The sun is now kicking out some serious heat, but the aircon copes well given the greenhouse bubble of the cabin.

The Sundance product includes a continuous commentary, which can be turned down via the headphone volume controls and which consists of both spoken word and quite well-matched music. This is augmented by topical interjections from the pilot.

The first sight of note is the Hoover Dam, and the chopper takes an s-shaped route to offer good views of both sides of the dam and from both sides of the cabin. It’s then onward, passing the spurs and bluffs, mesas and buttes that line Lake Mead, before crossing the massive body of water and heading towards the Canyon itself.

Cresting over the ridges of the surrounding highlands, the flightpath leads towards the Western gateway (or outlet, depending on your point-of-view) of the Canyon and the first glimpses of the vertiginous walls. With the theme to Indiana Jones playing over the PA, the Canyon looms and then the ground plummets away beneath the glazed footwells.

The Native American Hualapai community have recently opened a visitor attraction which is clearly visible as the Sundance helicopter begins its run along the canyon. The Grand Canyon Skywalk is the subject of much publicity and comment, and consists of a visitor centre and cantilevered glass platform which forms a u-shaped projection from the Canyon lip.

The promotional narrative informs readers that the Skywalk is 4000 feet above the Colorado River, which is absolutely correct. However, the Canyon wall beneath is far from vertical and, in fact, the projection is over a sort of side creek, rather than the main trench itself.

Visitors to the Skywalk have commented extensively on sites such as TripAdvisor, not just on the physical situation of the attraction, but also the commercial proposition which obliges visitors to pay for a tour to reach it, before paying once again to access the glass, upon which photography is banned....

Many of the comments posted are easily understood when the Skywalk is swept past by the chopper.

The Sundance tour then takes passengers down to a landing site inside the Canyon. This gives the opportunity to really get a good impression of the scale of the geography and geology of this slash along the earth’s crust. The peace and quiet is tangible and there’s plenty of time to take a wander through the scrub to find some solitude and take in the 360 degree view.

The landing site is some way above the river and there are a couple of camouflage – draped picnic shelters nearby, upon which your pilot will serve a light breakfast of orange juice, pastries, and a glass of something (!) fizzy. It’s all rather civilised and, of course, the benefit of sharing the helicopter with others means that there are plenty of willing photographers to take snaps of your party in its entirety.

After about half an hour, as the Canyon gradually warms in the new day, it’s time to re-board the helicopter and soar back towards the rim to return from this pristine wilderness to the complete opposite that is Vegas.

On a previous trip, we made a more-or-less direct heading back to McCarran but, on this occasion we were to detour via Boulder City Airport to deposit our fellow tourists for the start of a rafting adventure. This extended our trip slightly (a bonus if you like helicopters!) and afforded us an extra landing and take-off, which as with most air travel is much the most interesting part for me. We also got a bit of a Top Gun walk across the tarmac....

This partial unloading also means that, for the final 20 minutes, we have the cabin to ourselves. We now aim straight for the Northern end of The Strip and, as the hotels and sights come into sharp focus, the inevitable soundtrack is Elvis and Viva Las Vegas.

Our flight path takes us to the right of The Stratosphere before banking 90 degrees to the left and buzzing the length of The Strip as far as New York New York. Here, we make another 90 degree turn to get a superb view of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower opposite.

A final 90 degree swing, this time to the right, and we are on a steep approach back to the Sundance Heliport.

It’s a concentrated immersion into the natural wonders of the Nevada/Arizona border, and quite difficult to reconcile that, by 10.30am, we are back at the Four Seasons having had breakfast in the Canyon. It’s a once in a lifetime experience that I’ve now done twice.

And so ends our brief side-tour to Las Vegas, as we pack our cases once again and I prepare for the now habitual checkout tussle. I’m not to be disappointed as that breakfast credit comes back to haunt us. It seems that there is a fixed amount apportioned to the included ‘Continental Breakfast’ that they don’t actually serve and no amount of discussion, or highlighting of the fact that we have not availed ourselves of the one-time per stay lunch credit seems to have any impact. It’s another point to be discussed with the charming manager who calls some weeks later, but who knows whether processes will be improved for other guests. It’s certainly not been as slick an experience as I’d expected of a Four Seasons property.

Defeated, we check out and take a cab to McCarran for our US Airways flight 16 to Phoenix Sky Harbor.

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