There are some things every person pictures themselves doing while visiting the amazing light show that is Las Vegas: strolling the Strip, gambling in the casinos, drinking from a cup shaped like the Eiffel Tower, and enjoying a variety of performances, from Cirque du Soleil to Carrot Top. Maybe some people envision themselves visiting a cactus garden. (I never did, but cacti are pretty popular in this area of the world.)
But I will bet - and since this is a post about Las Vegas I really should do some betting - that no one has ever daydreamed about traveling to Vegas to visit a cactus garden in a chocolate factory.
Yes, that's what I said. Somewhere in the back streets of Las Vegas, there lies a beautiful cactus garden in the middle of a chocolate factory. It was an unscheduled and unexpected stop in my last trip to Sin City, but I'm sure glad we went!
|Some pumpkin-shaped cacti in Ethel M's Botanical Garden!|
It all began when my cousin Marriann and I booked a day trip to see Hoover Dam. That was a cool side trip, and a great way to spend a sunny day in Nevada. On our way back, our tour bus driver, Harriet, made an announcement. "Ladies and gentleman," she began, and our heads automatically spun to the windows, eager to see whatever landmark she was about to point out. Instead, she told us, "I have a hankering for some chocolate."
I looked at her in confusion, as were all the other passengers. "I am about to tell you a well-kept Las Vegas secret, folks," Harriet continued. "Our city is the headquarters for some of the most delicious chocolate you will ever taste - Ethel M Chocolates. This place is where M'n'M chocolates began."
My mouth started to water. Call me Pavlov's dog.
|Yum! Fresh chocolate made right in the factory.|
"I'm all out of Ethel M chocolate at home, and I wouldn't mind stopping by to get some more, if that's okay with you folks," Harriet hinted. "Is anyone in a hurry here?"
The bus shook with a resounding no, as everyone had been hooked by Harriet's introduction. We all now wanted chocolate, and a free side tour to boot! Harriet nodded smugly, and changed lanes. As we drove to the factory, I got to see a side of Las Vegas that your typical tourist never gets to see - regular box-store malls with grocery and home renovation stores, neat boulevards lined with middle-class housing, playgrounds and parks for family recreation. It was good to remind us that Vegas is much more than the busy, tourist-laden Strip.
|Welcome to Ethel M Chocolates (and cactus garden).|
Harriet explained to us that Ethel M Chocolates is not just a chocolate factory and shop, but also a famous botanical garden. The original owner, Ethel M, was obsessed with cacti, and began her cactus garden in a courtyard just outside the factory so she could enjoy it every day. Eventually her little side project grew to be a world-famous cacti collection. The garden is free to visit, as well.
|Standing outside the world-class botanical garden.|
When we arrived, everyone made a beeline for the chocolate factory and store. Figuring it would be busy and crowded, Marriann and I opted to stroll through the cacti instead. We were very surprised at the massive amount of cacti and other desert plants - the gardens were very comprehensive and well-kept. I enjoyed seeing my first Joshua Tree, which don't typically grow in Las Vegas but flourished due to Ethel's tender, loving care.
|Standing next to a Joshua Tree - it looks fuzzy but it really is quite sharp!|
|The strange and beautiful saguaro cactus skeletons.|
Sadly for our group, we had arrived just before closing time at the chocolate factory, so the machines and production lines were no longer running. The fine folks at Ethel M still allowed us to wander through the factory tour to see what it looked like inside. And of course, they let us buy chocolate to our heart's content in the store (oh... so... good!)
|Just a sample of the machines that go into making delicious M'n'M chocolate!|