With my staff travel deal coming to an end, it was time for one last trip. I'd previously visited Vegas for a business trip many years ago, but it was the usual tight schedule. I got to take a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon then, but we didn't land – it was just there and back. My aim this time was to combine an actual visit to the Canyon with others to the Zion National Park, Hoover Dam and the Valley of Fire. All in three days.

As ever with staff travel, there was no point booking anything until the day before. A few days out, it was looking likely that I'd get there, and very likely that I'd get home (reassuring on the anniversary of The Dubai Adventure) – though it also seemed certain I'd be travelling cattle-class both ways (don't they know who I am?!).

I found a good hotel deal at the Stratosphere. Since the Stratosphere Tower was the only place in Las Vegas itself I wanted to visit, that rather cut out the middleman.

I needed to be at the airport at 7.30am, which would have meant getting up at some impossible time from home, so booked a cheap hotel in Gatwick and headed down there the night before.

Online check-in kindly agreed to hand over a boarding pass, though sadly not the colour I've enjoyed on previous trips.

But Priority Pass gave me a seat with a view, and RyanAir provided a little entertainment (likely a fuel-spill).

Virgin's Economy is actually pretty decent, with plenty of legroom and edible food. I'd also managed to snag a seat with an empty seat next to me, so the flight was comfortable enough.

You may have heard me refer to my 'practice novel': a romcom/chick-lit novel written many years ago. I'd written it off as not good enough for publication, but I was persuaded to give it another chance by an author group I belong to. An edited version of the first chapter got the thumbs-up, so I spent the entire flight editing the rest.

To my great surprise, 11 hours was enough to get it into a state where it seemed worth sending to beta-readers, at least. This also meant time whizzed by.

The flight was scheduled to land at 13:15 local, which indeed it did – to an extremely windy McCarron. But it turned out that the touchdown – or bangdown, in this case – wasn't the most interesting part of the arrival.

A guy on the aircraft had gotten very drunk (or some pharmaceutical equivalent) and had to be restrained. The captain radioed for police to meet the aircraft, and we sat at the gate for about 20 minutes until three burley-looking cops arrived to arrest the drunk/druggie. I suspect it will have been an expensive trip for him, likely a hefty fine then refused entry.

Immigration was, however, surprisingly swift by US standards. They had a separate track for those of us who'd previously visited the States recently and had an entry stamp in our passports, so I was through in around an hour.

My only plan for that day was sunset at the top of the Stratosphere Tower – conveniently attached to my hotel – followed by booking the Grand Canyon tour I'd identified beforehand, then sorting out the rest of my itinerary once that was confirmed. I got the main feature sorted, leaving the rest for the morning.

I headed to the top of the tower about half an hour before sunset. I had a brief discussion with the manager when they didn't want to allow my tiny (4-inch) tabletop tripod in. This was first stated to be for security reasons, then for marketing reasons.

It's always bemused me why a tourist attraction wouldn't want people sharing decent photos of them. They eventually allowed it in ... on condition I didn't use it. So I didn't: I used tables and my jumper instead (which I always use anyway to shield the window from reflections as best as possible).

Which did the trick.

There's an open deck above, and the 50-60mph winds were still going, so none of the rides were operating, and nor was the bungee-jump.

I try to stay up to a halfway decent bedtime, but by 9pm local (5am UK) I hit the hay – which meant I was up before 4am. But that gave me time to sort out the rest of my itinerary, so all was good.


Saturday's plan was a trip to the Hoover Dam. A bus tour provided transport there and back, plus admission to the official government tour and about an hour of additional free time.

I did have one other small matter to take care of. Being Vegas, I thought they might not let me leave the city until I'd gambled. I was envisaging checks at the airport. "Hmm, your passport, entry stamp and boarding pass all appear to be in order, Sir, but I don't see a casino receipt." So stopped off at one of the slot machines and donated a dollar to the casino.

The bus to the Hoover Dam picked me up from my hotel, and it was about an hour's drive.

You really do have to visit it to appreciate the sheer scale – photos simply don't do it justice. The tour takes you inside the dam, and the first stop is one of the inlet pipes where they explain in outline how the thing works.

There are wide inlet pipes through which water is drawn. It then passes into smaller-diameter pipes, which of course increases the velocity of the water to around 45mph. It's this water which drives the turbines.

This is one of the wide feeder pipes.

But the really incredible part of the visit is the turbine hall. This sits inside the base of the dam.

Partly because the scale of the turbines is in itself an amazing sight. I was fortunate enough to be visiting when they were performing maintenance on one of the magnetos, so it was out of the generator. The work, including cleaning the contacts, would take five weeks.

They also have a cutaway one you can walk inside.

But more than the size of the generators, the turbine hall provides a visual illustration of just how thick the dam is at its base. You're inside the dam right at the bottom, and the turbine hall runs almost from front to back.

At the top of the dam, where the road passes across it, the dam is just 45 feet thick. But down here, at its base, it's over 600 feet thick.

It's an incredible feat of engineering, and the tour does an excellent job of bringing the achievement to life.

Sample factoid: if you used the amount of concrete in the dam to build a road 16 feet wide and three inches deep, it would run from San Francisco to New York.

The tour ends at the viewing platform.

I'd had a large breakfast, so decided to walk off the calories by walking from Nevada ...

Across the state line ...

to Arizona.

And back. Loads of calories, right?

The water level has been steadily dropping for the past decade or so. I was told it's so far a concern rather than a crisis, but untimately a lot of farmland and cities – from Vegas to large swathes of California – depend on this water. You can see from the change in colour where the water level used to be.

It's supposed to be good luck in Vegas to touch the feet of the statue. I wasn't planning to test the theory.

Americans like their eagles.

Then it was time to say goodbye to the dam.

Albeit not for long. I deployed both once-in-a-lifetime and last-staff-travel-trip excuses to justify an add-on to the visit, from Boulder Airport.

I got the co-pilot seat.

I wanted to get an exterior shot of the Stratosphere Tower. I mean, technically I had a view of it from my hotel room, but rather a close-up one.

Vegas really doesn't have much of a skyline, especially downtown, and it also seems a little lacking in the 'bars at the top of tall buildings' department. I asked the hotel concierge if the could recommend a vantage-point, and she suggested the top of the Hilton parking garage.

It wasn't the most glamorous of locations, and I fully expected security to spot me on CCTV and come and demand I stop using their roof as a free viewing platform, but fortunately they didn't. I positioned myself at the only corner where the view of the tower wasn't blocked by the building in the foreground.

Since I was doing my usual thing of getting there before sunset (which was unspectacular) to wait for the blue hour, I thought I might as well set up the iPhone to do a time-lapse at the same time. I'd recently switched from the iPhone 6S to the iPhone SE (for reasons you can read about here, starting at the bottom), I decided to use that to shoot a timelapse at the same point.)

The result was nothing spectacular, but a bit of fun.

As I say, not much of a skyline here, but spending some time in the very pleasant shirt-sleeves temperatures in the open air on the 13th floor and watching the sun go down was a pleasing way to end the day, despite the lack of wine.

Back at the hotel, I treated myself to a glass of lovely Brancott Estate Pinot Noir – not a wine I knew, but you can't go wrong with a New Zealand red – and was asleep by 10pm.


Time for the Grand Canyon! Stage 1 of the visit was a 40-minute shuttle to the Hendersen Exec air terminal. Stage 2 was a Beechcraft 1800B flight to Grand Canyon Airport.

Every seat is a window seat, and we were encouraged to swap back and forth between left and right sides to see everything. En-route, things soon started to get canyoney.

We were also invited to wander up to the flight deck, which I of course did – to get even better views. Bizarrely, only one other passenger accepted the invitation, and she took one photo and went straight back to her seat, so I spent most of the flight there.

I took more photos, but didn't keep them as they looked a little pointless after the ones I took from the helicopter.

Speaking of which, it was a 2-minute drive from the airport to the heliport. I checked my seat assignment and found I was in a rear seat. They say every seat has a great view, but the front-right seat of course has the best view, so I asked the check-in woman if she could introduce me to the pilot, which she did – and a very fine chap he is too. :-)

I don't normally go in for these, but to celebrate Grand Theft Helicopter Seat ....

And then we were off. You fly in over the forest, and almost immediately ...

I'll let the photos do the talking from here.

Suffice it to say that if you ever get the chance to take this flight, do it. I've been fortunate enough to have visited many amazing places in the world, and had some fantastic experiences, but this was among the best. Sit down before looking at the cost, but I promise it's worth every cent.

The final part of the day was a short drive to Bright Angel Lodge, a viewing point for the canyon with a trail that follows the South Rim. We were there for an hour, which was enough time to walk a few miles.

Ok, it can't compare to the helicopter ride through the canyon, but it's an awe-inspiring experience in its own right.

The scale is impossible to judge, but my visual estimate of the distance across to the North Rim would have been 1-2 miles; it's actually 10 miles wide at that part (reaching 18 miles at its widest). Again, photos have no chance of capturing the experience. I took them mostly to capture the memory than with any hope of anything meaningful for anyone else.

Used to America's rather controlled experiences, I was very surprised to find that there are no barriers and no 'Stay on the trail' notices. There's just a low wall that you can hop over to stand right on the very edge.

Again, a photo doesn't do it justice. but I'm standing about a foot from a drop of around a thousand feet. I may not have done any rock-climbing for many years, but it seemed to still be in my blood – as I was to confirm the following day ...

Then it was time for the flight back. I'd timed my visit well: there was perfect weather all day, but one of the pilots on the plane told me there was poor weather on the way, and sure enough as we approached Vegas ...


Monday's plan was a Jeep trip to the Valley of Fire. Sadly, it was a horribly murky day, grey clouds and rain, so the landscape wasn't going to look much like the postcards.

But the setting is spectacular whatever the weather, so I enjoyed the big views, but only took a few shots.

Appreciating why it's a popular place for car commercials ...

All the type of shots that would look much better with sun on the rocks, set off against a clear blue sky. So mostly I only used the camera closer-up.

With an emphasis on real close-ups. The others in my party were rather bemused, I think, by my clambering up sandstone rock faces and pointing the camera at the rock rather than the landscape.

Most people were focused on the numerous petroglyphs, but I'm a heathen when it comes to these things, very much of the view that when you've seen one stick figure scratched into a piece of rock, you've seen 'em all. So here's one.

When the road was being built, it was a very long way from anywhere, and the first road was just a gravel one, meaning it took a long time to get in and out, so the workers lived on-site in stone cabins. Bit basic, but can't argue with the views.

I mentioned that I had to go clambering up rockfaces to take a lot of the close-ups. The Jeep driver/tour guide took a few photos of me doing so, mostly, I think, so he had evidence for the inquest.

Ok, so that one may have been posed ...

As some of you know, I used to be a rock-climber. I haven't climbed for many years, but I have to say this did give me the taste for it again ...

All-in-all, a fun visit despite the weather.


There was just time to squeeze in one last experience before heading to the airport. A friend recommended a shooting range close to my hotel, and I figure everyone has to fire a machine-gun once in their lives ...

They offer all kinds of packages, some of them extremely expensive, but I paid just over $100 to fire a SIG P-226 (a handgun used by many police forces), the MP5 SD (the one you see the Met Police officers carrying, pictured above) and the M4 CQBR (one of the main US military weapons).

I mostly used the MP5 in single-shot mode, but did of course have to try a burst of auto too (yeah, that will be that row of bullet-holes leading up and left ...). It's surprisingly light and easy to handle, and will be my weapon of choice for the zombie apocalypse. With the M4, I decided it kind of defeated the point of the experience to fire that one in single-shot mode, so I just went full Rambo and emptied the magazine in one go. Amazingly, I got my best scores doing that. I guess a mix of the laser-sight and the M5 having prepared me for the kick of an automatic.

A fun experience, and one to tick off the bucket-list, but can't say I understand why people take it up as a hobby..

At check-out, the Stratosphere was an object lesson in how not to do customer service. They managed to turn a very minor problem into an annoyed customer by dint of three 'managers' passing the buck, each telling me I needed to speak to the manager of a different department. I gave up and wrote a 1-star review on Trip Advisor on the short ride to the airport.

As expected, there were no premium seats available, but the gate staff did kindly give me an exit-row seat. Better yet, the plane didn't appear too heavily-loaded in Economy, so I did a recce as soon as boarding was complete. Sure enough, I spotted an empty row of four seats a short distance away.

You have to take your assigned seat for take-off (for weight-balance reasons), but I was carefully listening out for the bong. Within one nanosecond of the seat-belt signs going off, I was out of my seat to snag them - to the disappointment of the several passengers who arrived 20-30 seconds later. You snooze, you lose. Or, in this case, you lose, you don't snooze. Arm-rests up, pillows and blankets stockpiled, and I had myself a DIY upgrade to a flat-bed seat..

Not quite up to Upper Class standards, but a much better deal on an overnight flight than a Premium Economy seat, comfy as those are for sitting.

Then all I had to do was consume sufficient wine to fool my body into thinking it was now midnight – the local time in the UK – rather than 4pm. This was a hardship I was prepared to endure. It was a pretty successful effort, giving me about six hours' sleep and leaving my body-clock on something approximating UK time on arrival.

So, all-in-all, not a bad way to end a fantastic trip – the swansong for my staff travel days.

Adrian had told me that many people love the idea of staff travel, but aren't so keen on the realities: last-minute plans (after Dubai, I only ever 'booked' the day before), very short trips (to reduce the likelihood of the free seats on your return flight being sold while you're there), willingness to change destination if your planned flight is full (I did that four times) – and always the risk that you'll get stranded somewhere (once). Many of those offered the opportunity don't take much advantage of it.

I don't think anyone is likely to level that charge at me. My final tally was: Dubai, Jamaica, Miami, Vancouver, Cape Town, Boston, New York, Hong Kong and Las Vegas. Admittedly my final 'free' trip was also the most expensive – thanks to spending a rather extravagant amount on excursions – but it was still significantly cheaper than it would have been with the flight on top. I think I owe Adrian some more booze ....