Maureen C. Bruschi

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If you ever have even the slightest urge to commit a crime, visit Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) first. I guarantee you, you’ll walk away a model citizen.  Maybe wandering through the crumbling cellblocks and examining individual concrete cells, punishment cells, and Death Row, will do that to you.  Yet at the same time, the prison walls radiate a haunting message of amazing mystical beauty and dignity.  It almost makes you think that there might be more stories buried away yet to be told.

2-7 cellblocks spread like spokes of wheel

Penitence Rules at Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, built to inspire inmates to feel shame and regret for the crimes they committed. The purpose of ESP was to abandon corporal punishment and help the criminals focus on spiritual reflection and change.

3-prison cell

This Quaker-inspired method included isolating prisoners from each other. ESP originally had seven cellblocks that were spread out like the spokes of a wheel. Hallways had catwalks and skylights.  Each inmate had his own vaulted, sky-lit cell, centrally heated, with running water and a flush toilet immediately inside the cell doorway.  Adjoining each cell was a private outdoor exercise yard enclosed by a ten-foot wall guaranteeing that prisoners couldn’t talk to one another.

In addition to not being allowed to talk to other inmates, prisoners were also not allowed to read books, receive visitors or speak to the guards. Their meals were delivered to them in their cells by guards through “feeding doors.” Living and working in solitary confinement was meant to help each prisoner become “penitent,” hence the word penitentiary.

4-Private outdoor exercise yd.

Controversy followed as to whether isolating prisoners worked. Finally in 1913, the Pennsylvania System of solitary confinement for ESP prisoners ended.  More cellblocks were added and each cell housed two or three prisoners. Cells that had a door to an exercise yard were sealed closed.

In 1956, Cellblock Fifteen or Death Row was the last major addition to the prison. Apparently, as death row inmates at that time awaited execution for their crimes, Pennsylvania System prison officials no longer thought that prisoners could become “penitent” or capable of redemption.

5-Capone' cell

Notorious Criminals Roamed the ESP Hallways

Al Capone’s stay at the ESP from 1929 to 1930 is most visibly remembered because of the gangster’s comfy digs. The infamous Chicago boss was sentenced to eight months for carrying a concealed, deadly weapon.  According to news articles written while he was incarcerated, he lived in luxury, housed in the “Park Avenue” section of cells during his time at ESP.  One article said he shared a cell with convicted embezzler Bill Coleman, while another claimed his cellmate was a forger.  Capone’s cell was said to have been furnished with antiques, rugs, a French dresser, oil paintings, a smoking stand and a cabinet radio.  Not bad for life in prison.  But ESP administrators always insisted that Capone never received special treatment.

Another criminal mastermind, bank robber Willie Sutton, made headlines during his eleven year stay at ESP. He participated in a doomed tunnel escape in 1945 with 11 men.  “Slick” Willie and his prison gang dug a one hundred foot underground tunnel; several prisoners escaped, but Sutton was recaptured immediately. Sutton’s additional claims to shame included over 50 bank robberies and 3 successful escapes from prison.

My vote for the most interesting olden times crime and criminals at ESP goes to Joe Buzzard and his brothers. According to ESP records, horse theft was at one time the number one crime at the prison. Joe, the youngest criminal in his family, was considered one of the top horse thieves in the country.  The five Buzzard brothers, Abe, Ike, Jacob, Martin and Joe were all prisoners at ESP at some time during the late 1800’s to the mid-1900’s.

The list of noteworthy criminals and their crimes range from armed robberies by William “Blackie” Zupkoski, the self-proclaimed “Toughest Man in Philadelphia” to first degree murderer, Victor “Babe” Andreoli. Women joined the list of unforgettable prisoners as well.  Freda Frost was sentenced to 20 years after murdering her husband.  And Leo Callahan, imprisoned for assault and battery with intent to kill, was the only one out of 100 inmates to attempt to escape from ESP who didn’t get caught. In 1923, he and five other prisoners escaped over the East wall of the Penitentiary with a makeshift wooden ladder.  All five men were eventually captured. Leo was never heard from again.  (No need to panic. If he were alive today, he would be over 110 years old.)

Ghost Sightings Abound

We couldn’t possibly have a story about a dilapidated, abandoned prison, without a few haunting ghost sightings. In the 1940’s, prisoners and officers alike described inexplicable images and unnerving experiences in the prison. Close to 60 paranormal investigation teams have found evidence of ghosts roaming around the almost 200 year old institution.

If you’re looking for adventure and thrills, visit the prison at Halloween. ESP’s Terror Behind the Walls kicks off a scary Halloween season by bringing the abandoned cells and ghostly inmates to life at night.  Each small group is led through six attractions inside the cellblocks, defenseless against the horrors of a dark, creepy prison, including being separated from the group, grabbed by a delirious “inmate” or tossed into a solitary punishment cell.

Eastern State Penitentiary Closes its Doors

By the 1960’s, ESP was in disrepair. The facility closed in 1971, 142 years after admitting its first prisoner.

6-Guard Tower

Today, the guard towers are empty and the cellblocks are crumbling. But a number of die-hard ghost hunters and paranormal investigative teams claim that the years of suffering endured by those who were incarcerated created an extraordinary energy that continues to linger in the cellblocks of Eastern State Penitentiary.

If you go:

Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19130; (215)236-3300;

Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary-see for fall schedule and prices.

What do U.S. Presidents Buchanan, Grant, Harrison, Pierce and Arthur have in common? These five presidents favored Cape May as a summer retreat when they were in office during the second half of the 19th century. The cordial reception and privacy afforded the Presidents at Cape May’s Congress Hall provided them a welcomed respite from politicians and the sweltering hot summers in Washington, D.C.

Although some of us might not be able to afford to vacation in the popular summer months like a US President, a fall visit to Cape May during the week offers cheaper accommodations, dining and entertainment. It may be a bit chilly for swimming, but the crowds are gone and the days are still sunny and pleasant. If you want to see the “other” Cape May, put on some comfortable walking shoes and discover Victorian Cape May in the fall.


199 Steps…But Who’s Counting

Photo 1. Cape May Lighthouse
For the best view of the cape, head for the Cape May Lighthouse, located at Cape May Point State Park. If you climb the 199 steps to the top you might end up out of breath, but you won’t be disappointed. Circle the outer walkway at the top of the lighthouse and you’ll see the Jersey Cape where the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay meet. As you look out toward the beach you’ll be rewarded with a view of an historic, but deteriorated World War II bunker. During the war, the southern New Jersey coastline was in danger of enemy invasions and attacks from hostile warships. As a result, the US Army Corps of Engineers built the bunker which contained heavy artillery and was manned by naval gunnery crews.


Watch Out for the Hawks
Take a moment to stroll around Cape May Point State Park where you’ll discover a prime bird-watching area for fall migration. Hawks heading south toward the Delaware Bay first pass over the narrow corridor of land along the Cape May peninsula. A number of trails give you a view of various ponds, coastal dunes, a marsh and forest habitats. Take the Red Trail and you’ll come upon an observation platform overlooking freshwater ponds where you’ll be able to see wading birds, swans and ducks. Different habitats including coastal dunes, the wetland marsh and the beach are accessible on the Yellow Trail. Follow the Blue Trail along the beach where you’ll have a chance to see flora and fauna as well as shore birds.


Concrete Lasts Forever
A short distance from Cape May Point State Park you’ll discover two of Cape May’s historic landmarks. Take Sunset Boulevard towards the water and on your left you’ll see the World War II Fire Lookout Tower. Built in 1942, this tall concrete tower was one of 15 towers on the New Jersey and Delaware shores that were used to spot and fire upon enemy ships attempting to enter Delaware Bay during the war. This is the only free standing tower that remains today. (Check dates and times of operation.)
Continue down Sunset Boulevard until you reach the beach. About 150 feet off the coast of Sunset Beach you’ll see the remains of the S.S. Atlantus, an experimental concrete ship. There were twelve built during World War I, but were proven impractical because of weight. In 1926, the Atlantus was to be used as a ferry dock for a proposed ferry between Cape May and Henlopen, Delaware. A storm hit and the Atlantus broke free of her moorings and ran aground, where parts of the concrete ship remain today.


Victorian Homes Rule
Take a stroll or a horse-drawn carriage ride through the town’s historic district and enjoy Victorian architectural styled homes with spirited colors and gingerbread trim. Gurney Street off Beach Avenue has a number of colorful Victorian homes.

If you want to get a real taste for Victorian lifestyles, make sure you visit the Emlen Physick Estate, an 18-room Victorian house museum, built in 1879. Here you’ll see how both the wealthy and their servants lived during the late 19th century.

Need a break from history and the Victorian way of life? Wander over to the Washington Street Mall, an outdoor concourse closed to traffic. Here you’ll find everything from ice cream parlors and sidewalk cafes to art galleries and candy stores.


Captain Kidd and Cape May-Perfect Together
Did I mention Captain Kidd’s ties to New Jersey’s southernmost tip? The notorious pirate visited Cape May during the 17th century, long before our distinguished presidents, but not for a summer retreat. Rumor has it that Captain Kidd allegedly buried some of his stolen treasures close to the Cape May Lighthouse near a tree that came to be called Kidd’s Tree. The tree was supposed to help lead Kidd and his crew back to the buried treasures. But Kidd was captured by the British and hung. He claimed, until his death, that he buried some of his treasures in what is now Cape May Point. Unfortunately the tree was cut down in 1893 and the treasures never unearthed. One can only imagine what lurks beneath the sands at Cape May Point.


If You Go by Air: Philadelphia International Airport serves all major airlines and is about an hour and forty minutes to Cape May.

By Water from Delaware: The Cape May-Lewes Ferry runs daily between Cape May and Lewes, Del. Reservations recommended. (800) 643-3779.

Driving: From Philadelphia-Take the Ben Franklin or Walt Whitman Bridge to Rt. 676 south. Follow signs for Rt. 42, Atlantic City. Take Atlantic City Expressway to Exit 7. Take Garden State Pkwy. south to Cape May. From New York and New Jersey-Take the Holland or Lincoln Tunnel, or the GW Bridge to the NJ Turnpike south. Get off at exit 11 and take the Garden State Pkwy. south to Cape May.

Where to stay: Montreal Inn, 1025 Beach Ave.; (609)884-7011 (right on the ocean, reduced rates; no minimum stay in October). The Mainstay Inn, 635 Columbia Ave.; (609) 884-8690 (historic bed and breakfast one block from the ocean, reduced rates weekdays in off season)

Where to Eat: The Blue Pig Tavern, 200 Congress Place; (609) 884-8422; American classic comfort food;; The Blue Moon Pizza; 425 Beach Avenue; (609)884-3033; gourmet, traditional and Sicilian pizza;

Additional Accommodations and Restaurants:; (Call ahead to ensure they are open during the fall)

For More Information: Concrete Ship, Sunset Beach, Sunset Boulevard;

Cape May Lighthouse, Lighthouse Ave.;

Washington Street Mall:

Emlen Physick Estate, 1048 Washington Street;

Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May:

If you’re planning a trip to Naples, Florida, you won’t want to miss the 5th Avenue South shops and restaurants, golf courses, fishing charters, water sport adventures and swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. However, when you want to take a break from the hustle and bustle of jet skis, airboat rides, and parasailing, head to the 14,000 acre Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Slip into your favorite walking shoes, grab binoculars and a camera, and wander along the 2.25 mile raised boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Here you’ll discover a diversity of inhabitants as you roam through a pine upland, a wet prairie, a cypress forest and a marsh. Every day is a new adventure at Corkscrew Swamp. From the boardwalk you may encounter blue herons feeding on crayfish, anhingas spreading their wings to warm up, tiny turtles, great egrets and giant alligators as well as a variety of native plants including wild orchids and the blue flag iris. As you walk into the largest old growth bald cypress forest in North America, listen for the loud hoots of the barred owls. Located northeast of downtown Naples, you’ll experience spectacular swamp adventures complete with over 200 species of birds, wildlife and their natural habitats in the heart of the Western Everglades.
You’ll start your boardwalk stroll in pine flatwood where wildlife varies with the seasons. In the fall, ripened palmetto berries draw raccoons, deer and black bears as they search for food supplies. Throughout the year you might see and hear mockingbirds, woodpeckers, red-shouldered hawks and cardinals among the oak and hardwood hammocks that dot the area. I was lucky to view a brightly colored male painted bunting feeding on insects and grasses close to one of the feeders.

Continue along the boardwalk and you’ll discover the wet prairie, slightly lower in elevation than the pine flatwood. Grasses, sedges and reeds dominate the area. Here in the spring, you’ll get your best view of herons, egrets and ibis as they hunt for food in the grasses. Be on the lookout for wood storks overhead. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is home to the largest remaining breeding ground for the endangered wood stork.
Before you arrive at the bald cypress forest you’ll come across the pond cypress where wet prairie and bald cypress wildlife meet. The smaller pond cypress trees grow in the more open wetland area and are more than 100 years old. They grow much closer to each other than the bald cypress trees.

As you walk deeper into the swamp, majestic 600 year old bald cypress trees reaching heights of 130 feet surround you. Along the boardwalk, I spotted two barred owls in different locations sitting high up in the bald cypress trees. Take a close look at some of the cypress trees and you’ll see what appear to be vines growing up the tree. They are not vines but are roots of the strangler fig tree. According to the Audubon Society, the strangler fig tree begins growth on the cypress tree when birds eat the fruit growing on the strangler fig tree branches and expel the seed from the fruit in a crevice in the cypress tree. The fig tree will begin to grow up while its roots grow down and around the cypress tree. The strangler fig tree grows on a number of other trees throughout the sanctuary.

In the bald cypress forest you’ll come to an observation platform overlooking the central marsh. If you visit in the spring and bring binoculars, this is where you’ll get your best opportunity to see wood stork nesting colonies in the tops of the cypress trees. You also might see an assortment of vultures, anhingas, swallow-tailed kites, cardinals and blackbirds hunting for food.
My favorite part of the sanctuary is Lettuce Lakes. A mat of floating water lettuce plants blankets the water’s surface. Here you’ll find alligators and wading birds stalking crustaceans, fish, small reptiles, amphibians and insects for their next meal. From the boardwalk, I spotted a number of great egrets, alligators, a great blue heron, a little blue heron, a black-crowned night heron, and a lineup of tiny turtles. Unfortunately, the sanctuary was not always a safe haven for wildlife and habitats. The first crisis occurred in the late 1800’s when the rage in women’s fashions was for ladies to wear large hats decorated with feathers. Egret and heron plumes were in high demand and plume hunters headed to Corkscrew to make money on defenseless birds. Groups of conservationists called Audubon Societies (later to become the National Audubon Society) demanded a stop to killing wildlife for the sake of fashion. Audubon wardens took on the dangerous assignment of protecting the birds. Eventually the wetlands of South Florida were declared sanctuaries and plume hunting was outlawed.
In the 1950’s, a second crisis developed when Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s cypress forest was targeted for logging. Locals worked with the National Audubon Society to protect natural resources by purchasing 3,000 acres of virgin cypress forest at Corkscrew Swamp. Fortunately, conservation won out when plume hunting and logging threatened the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

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Montespertoli’s annual Chianti Wine Festival (Mostra Del Chianti) features some of Tuscany’s premium wines. But the festival includes a touch of Tuscan culture as well.
In addition to tasting first-class wines such as a dry and well-balanced Tenuta Il Monte Chianti, my family and I sampled the town’s home grown Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva (olive oil), crunchy sweets, and mouth-watering gelato. Some festival goers grabbed a bargain shopping for handbags, tablecloths, belts, and shoes. Others danced to the rhythm of the local bands and accordion players, or enjoyed the sidewalk circus, including a unicycle riding juggler.

My family arrived in Montespertoli, Italy, two days before the start of their Chianti Wine Festival. Our first Italian meal consisted of thinly sliced pizza and red wine from the local vineyards at the Pizzeria Ristorante in the center of Montespertoli.
From a sidewalk table we watched as the circular plaza in the middle of town was transformed from a quiet park with wooden benches, winding paths, and decorative flowers and plants to a festive ring of shops and wine tasting booths. Vendors set up their stands and workers put the final touches on two tremendous 18 foot tall replicas of wine bottles on either side of the entrance to the park.

Party with the Locals…Montespertoli celebrates its annual Chianti Wine Festival beginning on the last Sunday in May to the first Sunday in June. Both locals and tourists flock into town to enjoy the festivities. The streets leading into Montespertoli are blocked off during the festival. Parking is free on the outer edge of the village, only a short walk to the center of town.

We visited Mostra Del Chianti on a Sunday afternoon and wandered from booth to booth as merchants peddled their merchandise. One seller demonstrated the durability of his superior hand-embroidered linens by spilling red wine on the linen and simply brushing off the bubbly liquid with a sponge.
Sandels at a bargain price.  Photo by Maureen Bruschi
My sister stopped at one of the stands that sold trendy sneakers and fashionable sandals. With help from a salesman, she purchased a pair of comfortable sandals for under $20.
If you’re looking for a snack before dinner, (Tuscany restaurants generally don’t serve dinner before 7:30 PM), you’ll find food stands decorate the festival. Vendors sell an assortment of locally grown fruits, meats, cheeses and jellies, not to mention irresistible al cioccolato torrone (soft chocolate nougats).

We saved room for dinner at Montespertoli’s Ristorante La Terrazza. Home cooking with genuine Tuscan ingredients, including bread and olive oil (the olives are grown in the Chianti hills) dominated the menu. La Terrazza offers everything from pastas topped with home-made tomato sauces and meat ragùs to contorni – side dishes including marinated olives, string bean salad, grilled zucchini and eggplant, white bean salad and sliced Italian cheeses and meats.
Gelato and Wine – Perfect Together
After dinner, we returned to the festival for dessert and devoured gelatos at the Gelateria Fiorentina. Make sure you indulge in Italy’s creamy frozen ice cream, a specialty not to be missed during your visit. In central Tuscany, gelato is made from a milk and egg custard and is denser than American ice cream.

We saved the best for last. After dessert, we headed for the wine tasting booths. As you sample Tuscany’s quality wines at the festival, you’ll enjoy listening to merchants discuss the history behind the wine. For 5 Euros each (about $7.00), you can purchase a festival wine glass, a glass holder (a small red sack with a strap that goes around your neck to hold your glass while you taste Tuscany’s breads, cheeses and olive oils) and coupons for four glasses of wine. Stroll from booth to booth savoring sips of Tuscany’s best red wines produced locally, including Florence and Siena’s Chianti Classico wines.

There’s Plenty to Do in Tuscany…While you’re visiting Montespertoli’s wine festival; keep in mind that the town is close to key historic cities in Tuscany. Time permitting, you may want to tour the towers of San Gimignano ( , study the Renaissance paintings, sculptures and architecture of Florence (, and explore Siena’s ( Piazza del Campo’s ring of medieval palaces.

If you can’t make it to Montespertoli in the May-June timeframe for their Chianti Wine Festival, don’t despair. The town hosts a number of festivals throughout the year including a home-made pasta festival in August, a beer festival in September, a new wine festival in early November, and a olive oil festival in mid-November.

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7 Easy Ways to Discover the Secrets of the Arizona-Sonora Desert

Have you ever imagined what a day in the desert would be like? Picture a mountain lion stretching after a morning nap. Envision wandering past furry teddy-bear cholla cactus or organpipe cactus flourishing under the hot sun. Imagine stepping down into a man-made limestone cave and examining a velvet blue azurite or specs of gold. If you’re planning a trip to Tucson, Arizona, you’ll have an opportunity to do this and so much more. Treat yourself to wildlife action, intriguing vegetation, and the beauty of limestone caves and regional minerals at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum located fourteen miles west of Tucson.

Created in 1952 as a private, non-profit, natural history educational institution, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s objective was to help visitors understand the plants, animals and land that make up the Sonoran Desert. Here you’ll have an opportunity to observe over 1200 species of plants and 300 species of animals living in their natural habitats, as well as a superb collection of regional minerals and gemstones.

Before you begin your outing to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, I have a couple of suggestions that might make your visit a little more enjoyable. First, there are over 2 miles of outdoor paths, so make sure you’re wearing your favorite walking shoes, a hat and sunscreen. Second, as you enter the museum grab their self-guiding tour map which will help you move around the grounds efficiently and understand what you’re looking at. You could easily spend two or three days exploring the museum’s 21 acres of desert grasslands; mountain habitats; cactus, desert and pollination gardens; aviaries; and mineral exhibits. But if you only have a day to spare, here are 7 key desert museum sights you won’t want to miss.
Reptiles and Invertebrates
A view of a venomous Mohave rattlesnake slithering over a rock greets you as you venture into the reptiles and invertebrates section of the desert museum. Close by you might catch a glimpse of a Western Diamondback rattlesnake coiled between two rocks or a Rosy Boa slinking its way around a cactus. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the poisonous Mexican Beaded Lizard, one of only two venomous lizards in the world. (The other is the slow moving pink and black Gila Monster). Don’t miss the Desert Tarantula crawling across rocks and twigs. Museum monsters, snakes, scorpions, lizards and tarantulas are all safely behind glass so you can sneak a peek as close to the window as you dare.

Vista Ramada and the Overlook
As you head over to the Earth Sciences Center, take in a stunning sight of the Avra and Altar Valleys that separate the mountain ranges at the Vista Ramada and the Overlook. If it’s a clear day you might be able to see west across the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation and south to the Mexican Border.

Earth Sciences Center
At the Earth Sciences Center, you’ll descend into a credible artificial limestone cave, complete with stalagmites, stalactites and pools. If you want to experience a true cave experience, a side tunnel (designed with kids in mind), takes you 75 feet through low ceilings, tight passageways and jagged paths. Once you’re back on even footing, you’ll discover a large screen filled with erupting volcanoes describing the birth of our world. Next up is the one of a kind regional mineral and gemstone collection. Examine gold from the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona, or the pearly luster of Smithsonite from Arizona’s Glove Mine.

Mountain Woodland
Continue your visit counterclockwise and you’ll arrive at Mountain Woodland, a recreated habitat where you’ll discover animals and plants found in many nearby mountain ranges surrounded by the Sonoma Desert. In addition to the mountain lion, you may get to see white-tailed deer, Mexican wolves, cougars and the thick-billed parrots. Nesting only in the hollows of large, dead pine trees, the thick-billed parrots depend on pine seed crop for food. Along the outdoor path you’ll pass colorful cacti including the prickly pear cactus, and perhaps grab a bit of shade under a Mesquite tree.

Desert Grassland
Because of the heat during the middle of the day, we missed seeing the antics of the black-tailed prairie dogs who took shelter below the ground in the Desert Grassland. But we did stop in and see the snake exhibits. One of the more well-known snakes that live in the desert grasslands is the rattlesnake. Hear we learned that an alarmed rattlesnake vibrates its tail against the ground causing the rattle sound. In the grasslands you may also get a chance to see Sonoran green toads and burrowing owls.

Cat Canyon
Cat Canyon, home to small cats in their natural grotto settings, is a museum favorite. When you stroll through Cat Canyon, you can see all the animals, including margays, jaguarmundis and coatimundi from overhead and at eye level. On a hot day you might see the museum’s two bobcats resting on shaded cliff ledges to keep cool. If you’re lucky, you may be able to catch a glimpse of the extremely shy and nocturnal spotted ocelot.

Desert Loop Trail
If you ever wondered what it would be like to walk through the desert, don’t miss the half mile Desert Loop Trail. Here you might find the pig-like javelinas munching on prickly pear cacti as they move through an area. But the javelinas are not pigs. The javelina belongs to the peccary family while pigs and hogs belong to the swine family. There are many differences between the two families, but a major behavioral difference is that javelinas are highly social while pigs are more competitive.
As you continue along the desert loop, you’ll come to the coyote exhibit. Because the fence surrounding all the exhibits is difficult to see, you’ll feel as if you’re out there in the desert with them. (I found myself occasionally checking to make sure there was a fence between us.) Along the way the desert’s native vegetation including saguaro, creosote, ocotillo, and soaptree yucca surrounds you.

If You Have an Extra Day, There’s Still Plenty to See
Time permitting you may want to explore Life on the Rocks and take a look at habitats and small species found on Tucson’s rocky slopes; and the Bighorn exhibit where you’ll discover large agile sheep at home on a steep, wobbly hillside. Enjoy colorful landscaping at the Desert Garden; study over 100 landscaped desert plants and cactus at the Cactus Garden; and learn about animal pollinators at the Pollination Gardens. Native hummingbirds glide overhead at the Hummingbird Aviary while cardinals, Gambel’s quail, ducks, doves and other native bird species share the Walk-in Aviary. You can also discover how fish adapt in the desert at the Fishes and Amphibians exhibit.

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If you love gambling, you can’t beat Las Vegas. Over 68,000 slots and video machines and 2,400 gaming tables flood the Las Vegas Strip. However, if you want to see the “other side” of Las Vegas and your time is limited skip the gambling and head for these twelve activities you won’t want to miss.

My husband and I roamed the Las Vegas Strip with my sister and her friend who travel frequently to Las Vegas. They knew exactly where to go. We witnessed a volcano and a pirate battle, wandered through The Fremont Street
Experience, viewed Las Vegas from 1,149 feet, explored a tropical rainforest full of deadly predators, and enjoyed a rock ‘n roll tribute to America’s top performers. In between all the activities, we ate in a number of fabulous restaurants and experienced a touch of Paris, Venice and Rome, all in the span of 2 ½ days.

If you’ve never been to Las Vegas before, you’ll probably react the same way my husband and I did. Your eyes will be clued to all the blinking lightsand razzle-dazzle of the “the strip.” The Mirage, where we stayed, was equally spectacular. When we strolled through the front door, a lush rainforest along with palm trees towering above cascading waterfalls surrounded us. Bars and lounges, shops and restaurants, and of course slots, video
machines, and gaming tables decorated the immense lobby.

After we checked in, we stopped at the hotel’s BLT Burger located near the casino for a late night snack. Here burgers definitely rule. You can get anything from the classic burger to a lamb, veggie, salmon, and pork and
shrimp burger. My husband ordered the Atlantic Salmon Burger and wasn’t disappointed.
Our hearty meal gave us a second wind as we headed out to the front of the hotel to catch the spectacular Mirage Volcano ( <> erupting. Imagine a mountain rising about 50 feet out of a
lagoon surrounded by palms. During the day all is quiet as water cascades down the sides of the volcano. But once it’s dark, the fun begins. At 15-minute intervals, steamy smoke rises, the crater transforms into a fiery image, and flames leap into the air.

Next to the Mirage you’ll find the Treasure Island Hotel and the Sirens of TI <> Witness a music and dance extravaganza filled with aerial stunts including risky high dives off the ships, sword fights and acrobatics as the Sirens of TI battle a band of renegade pirates. Flames and fireworks light up Sirens Cove as one ship tries to take over the other. The performance takes place four times a
night. Make sure you check for start times and get there early since the free outdoor show always draws a crowd.

The next morning we crossed the strip to the Imperial Palace where we discovered an assortment of antique, famous and infamous cars at The Auto Collections ( <> The world’s largest classic car showroom houses over 300 cars, including the 1939 Chrysler Royal Sedan, the car in which Johnny Carson learned to drive.
Next we hopped on The Deuce, a bus that travels up and down the strip, and headed for the Fremont Street Experience ( <> If you visit at night you’ll enjoy an amazing light show under the Viva Vision canopy (90 feet above the ground and the length of 5 football fields).

After lunch at the Main Street Station’s Triple 7 Restaurant and Microbrewery (>,
we climbed back aboard The Deuce for a short trip to the Stratosphere Tower
(>, the tallest
freestanding observation tower in the United States. Here we discovered the best views of the Las Vegas Strip and enjoyed American Superstars, a rock ‘n
roll tribute to Michael Jackson, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood and others.

After the show we completed the night with dinner at the Stratosphere’s Courtyard Buffet. The buffet has something for everyone. You can gobble up all-American favorites (think fried chicken, turkey and mashed potatoes) or try their international favorites such as Swedish meatballs, fish and chips and Chow Mein. There’s also a carving station, a full salad bar, a drink station and a dessert table. Right outside the Stratosphere Towers, we caught The Deuce that took us back to our hotel.
On our second day, we scrambled back on The Deuce for a quick stop at MGM Grand Hotel’s Lion Habitat ( <> Across the strip at New York-New York Hotel
(<>, you’ll see a façade that re-creates the Manhattan skyline and its most famous landmarks.
Next stop on The Deuce was Mandalay Bay’s incredible adventure through Shark Reef Aquarium
(<>, home to more than 2,000 animals from around the world. The self-guided tour took us into a sunken shipwreck where Sandtiger sharks lie in wait; through a jungle
environment, home to the endangered Komodo Dragons; and finally into an ancient temple where the lionfish lurks.

After lunch at Mandalay Bay’s Red White and Blue, we headed back downtown and stopped at another themed Vegas hotel, Paris Las Vegas (<> The inside of the hotel captures all the details of Paris, including a ceiling painted blue with clouds, cobblestone sidewalks and alleys decorated with brass lamps, and fine French restaurants and cafes.
We crossed over the strip and took a quick peek at the Bellagio (<> In the lobby’s ceiling, you’ll see the hotel’s landmark piece, Dale Chihuly’s 2,000 vibrant hand-blown glass flowers. Continue straight ahead and you’ll come to the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens. When we were there we enjoyed the look of autumn, including babbling brooks, a mythical tree made of paper and wood, and a 13-foot-tall scarecrow.

Next to the Bellagio you’ll find Caesars Palace (<> As you step into the lobby, replicas of ancient Roman fountains and statues surround you. Home to The Colosseum, you may also find a bevy of talented entertainers performing, including Cher, Jerry Seinfeld and Bette Midler.

For dinner we trekked from the Mirage across the strip to The Venetian Hotel ( <> The Venice themed hotel includes frescoes on arched ceilings, and strolling performers and living statues at St. Mark’s Square. We devoured authentic Italian pastas at Trattoria Reggiano, a tiny sidewalk café tucked away in the Venetian Grand Canal Shoppes. After dinner, we couldn’t resist the Gondola Ride through
the canals of Venice as our gondolier serenaded us with several Italian ballads.

There you have it. We were a little tired but thrilled that we had the chance to experience the top sights and sounds of Vegas during our short stay. And we didn’t lose a cent gambling.

Getting Around: We bought a pass for The Deuce, the city’s bus that travels up and down The Strip. The Deuce costs $7 per person and is good for 24 hours.

Travelers’ Tips:
Grabbing a cab at the airport – If your hotel is located on the Las Vegas Strip, make sure you tell the cab driver to take the quickest route as opposed to driving down the entire length of the traffic-jammed strip. Our driver went down a side road parallel to the strip, and made much better time (and saved us money).

Sense of Direction on The Strip – Remember that when you’re heading downtown you’re traveling north; uptown is south; a little confusing at first.

Research Packaged Deals Before You Go- We had a Stratosphere Towers package that included The American Superstars Show, a trip to the observation decks and the buffet, all for $51.25 plus tax per person.