Scenic River Cruise to King’s Bay

On our holiday trek back to Florida, we’re spending the next few days at The Plantation on Crystal River, in Crystal River, FL.  One of its many offerings is an hour long cruise on King’s Bay, the outlet of Crystal River before spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.  One of the things Crystal River is known for is being one of the wintering spots for manatees.  When the Gulf gets cooler, manatees head up the rivers on Florida’s Nature Coast, gathering in large pods to keep warm.

There was only another couple on the boat with us, so it was easy to move around.  The captain, Brian, and his one person crew, pulled us out of the berth and out into the open water.  It was in the upper 70’s, a perfect Florida winter day.  The wildlife were definitely out.

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The first picture of two trees shows an island that once held a house.  The second is another abandoned house sitting on its own island.  Both were made uninhabitable by hurricanes.  Then, we found manatees.

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Some sped on by while another manatee just cruised along with our boat until stopping for a snack.  As we cruised along, looking for others, we spotted dolphins.  The dolphins find a school of fish, circle around them, and then dive in to snatch up a fish or two.  They did this a couple times as we watched.

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Once they were done, they opted to cruise along the bow of the boat for a bit.

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At only $15 per person for adults and $10 for children under 12, this is a wonderful way to spend an hour on the water.  You don’t have to be staying at The Plantation on Crystal River to partake of the tour.  Because the manatees and dolphins are wild animals, no guarantee of sightings can be made, but the captain will do all they can to make the trip as enjoyable as possible.

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Skyline Helicopter Tours

In North Las Vegas lies the Las Vegas regional airport, which is home to Skyline Helicopter Tours.  Somehow, Mom convinced me that we needed to do this.  And I’ll admit, I’m glad she did.

We drove up to North Las Vegas and checked in for our flight.  We had to fill out a few bits of paperwork and then came the moment all women dread.  We had to be weighed, holding our bags.  They didn’t tell us what came up, but also didn’t seem worried about us getting off the ground.

Even though our tour was scheduled for 1:30, they wanted us there an hour early and, because it was us, we were even earlier.  But that was no problem.  They had us out on the tarmac at about 12:45.  We were individually placed in the helicopter, with Mom behind our pilot Dan and I was on the other side.  We both had a window seat.  I was a bit nervous, but before we knew it, we were airborne.

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Because we were on the VIP tour, we got to fly over both Red Rock NCA (previously discussed in our Scoot City post) and Las Vegas.  It was neat seeing what the city and surrounding areas looked like from the air.  There was construction going on all over the place, with our pilot stating that, on average, 15,000 people move to the city every month.

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Then, we were over Red Rock.

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What seemed majestic from the ground was awe-inspiring from the air.  Then, we were heading for the Strip.  The juxtaposition from the arid desert surrounding the Red Rocks to the city was heavily marked.

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The size of Las Vegas and its surrounding communities is immense.

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But soon the familiar architectural landmarks came into view.

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And we got to see where they’re building the new stadium for when the LA Rams move to Las Vegas.

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While the view of the Strip was amazing, there were some hidden gems that could only be seen from the air to be viewed too.

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But then, it was time to return to the ground.

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The tour we took is normally $169.00 per person, but they do run specials or you can sometimes find them on Groupon (which is what we did).  There is an additional $25 airport fee that you pay when you check in for your tour, as well.  There are other options you can add on (such as taking the doors off or prepurchasing a photo package).  There is also a weight limit of 3 passengers/600 pounds with the doors on.  Still, it was an amazing adventure and something we’ll always remember.

Hoover Dam

Early in the morning, we drove down to the Grand Canyon Tour Company offices on Tropicana Blvd to catch the bus to Hoover Dam.

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We waited at the depot for the tour company’s shuttle buses from the hotels to arrive with the rest of the passengers for the tour.  Since we were staying at an AirBnB, we had to drive in ourselves. The temperatures were just right, though it was a cloudy day.  Our driver, Willie, spent the hour drive to the Dam telling jokes and providing information along the way.  This time of year, the bus wasn’t packed, so everyone had space to get comfortable.  He talked about the history of Boulder City, which we drove through on our way.  It was a cute town that has a great view of Lake Mead.

We stopped at an overview of the lake, created when the Hoover Dam was constructed.

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You can see where the water used to reach (the dark top of the island in the center) and where it is now, which is 8 feet above what it was last year.  But a drought that has been going on for 17 years keeps the water level low.

As we continued on to the Dam, we passed under the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.  Named for a former governor of Nevada and a former NFL player who gave up his career to serve in the military and was subsequently killed in Afghanistan, the bridge connects Arizona and Nevada together.

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Once we arrived, we departed the bus and headed for the tour area.

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We had to pass through metal detectors and and have our bags scanned, similar to going through TSA (though our shoes stayed on).  We had purchased the tour that included the generator room, so we first watched a short movie about the construction of the dam, which was probably one of the only government building projects that finished early.  Then, we were escorted to large elevators and taken down into the dam.

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Our first stop showed us a schematic of the dam, showing all the diverting tunnels, the ones that lead to the generators and how the water flows through the dam.  We even got to see one of the tunnels that routes the water.  It was currently in use and you could feel the vibrations through the floor.

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Then, we climbed back into the elevators and headed to the observation deck of the generators on the Nevada side of the dam.  The flooring was laid out to have two Art Deco symbols tiled into them.  One represents the turbines in the generators and one represents the electricity that is used in homes by depicting a wall socket.

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The day we were there, some routine maintenance was going on, with one turbine having the light cap off while that turbine was being worked on.

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They explained that if they needed to remove one of the turbines to do repair elsewhere, they would have to use two of the lifts, since each lift can pick up up to 30,000 pounds and each turbine weighs 58,000 pounds.

Finally, we ended up in the museum.  There were some interesting displays.

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Upon leaving the museum, we walked out to get a close up view of this marvel.

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You can tell the decade in which it was built, based on the amount of Art Deco architectural pieces on the dam.

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Then it was time to get back on the bus.  This led to the only thing we didn’t like.  Since we aren’t staying in a hotel. we had to sit on the big tour bus as it dropped off every single person at their hotels, including a side trip into the part of Las Vegas the tourism department wouldn’t be happy that we had seen.  While the drive to Hoover Dam was an hour, by the time we got back to the depot and to our car, the trip back was 2 1/2 hours.

For the most part, we enjoyed our trip, though by the end, we were done.  Perhaps if they had done like they do in the morning in reverse, as in dropping off people at the depot and using smaller shuttles to take people back to their hotels, it would be better.  Still, making a trip to Hoover Dam should be on your list of things to do off the Strip while in Las Vegas.

Ethel M Chocolates

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This morning, we headed over to the other side of Las Vegas to Henderson, NV to experience Ethel M Chocolates.  Founded in 1978 and opened in 1980, Ethel M is named after the founder’s mother.  The founder, by the way, was Forrest E. Mars Sr.  This company is a smaller, gourmet branch of Mars candies.  When he retired from Mars, he moved to Henderson to make chocolate in smaller batches, like he learned from his mother.  He also began collecting cacti and planting them around the building holding the factory and his private apartment.

You can visit the factory for free, viewing the action through clear glass, though they might be making Mars candies instead of the Ethel M’s because the parent company needs it.  Only a small portion of all the chocolate that Mars sources actually goes to Ethel M.

How did I find out all this information?  We took the Tasting Experience.  For $14.99 per adult and $4.99 per child, this is a great way to learn about the work that goes into making chocolate.  Ethel M doesn’t use preservatives in their chocolates, so you know you’re getting high quality products. When you arrive, the friendly staff greets you with chocolate samples.  Lots of chocolate samples.

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From the flower, to the pollinator (a special midge fly that only works with chocolate trees), to the seed, and on through opening it, the fermenting process, grinding and then transporting the different blends of chocolate that are made from the nibs.  Then, the fun begins!  You are presented with 4 different chocolate products of Ethel M. You can experience 4 completely different kinds or you can focus on just one branch, like milk chocolate or cremes.  We didn’t specify, so we got one of each.  They do take allergies in account, so I ended up having a macadamia chocolate instead of peanut.  FYI, if you have a severe peanut allergy, I would not recommend this tour.  They do process peanuts in the factory.

After the class, we were let free to roam the chocolate shop.

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Mom saw some chocolate that she wanted to take home, but I had to break the news that they weren’t real.

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We ended up with a much smaller box.

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If you’re looking for something off the Strip and have a sweet tooth, check out Ethel M Chocolates.