Ethel M. Chocolate Factory & Cactus Garden – Henderson, Nevada

Once my niece and nephew and I were all buckled in the backseat of my sister’s ancient Montero, I turned to my nephew – proudly perched in his new booster seat – and asked, “So what was your favorite part of our adventure, buddy?”

“Um…” he said, grinning. “All of it.

“All of it!” I repeated, arranging my souvenir bag on the floor as we pulled out of the parking lot, my hips wedged tightly between the two car seats, my shoulders scrunched. “That was pretty yummy chocolate, huh?”

“Um, yeah. And machines! Machines that make chocolate! It’s like a dream come true!” My nephew giggled, beaming out the window. “I’d need some pretty big Legos to make something that cool.”

Huh, I thought, the obvious dawning on me. I should’ve taken pictures inside the factory.

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Ethel M Chocolates in Henderson, Nevada, featuring a chocolate factory and a cactus garden!

If my regular readers thought I was through writing about Las Vegas, you’re in for a surprise. When I interviewed for my new job in California, I made it clear I had every intention of seeing my niece and nephew around one weekend a month. I had to be able to assure the kids that they’d still be seeing plenty of me. In fact, if you tally up the hours, they’ll be seeing as much of me or more than they did when I lived 15 minutes away.

So once I get back into a regular blogging rhythm, I’ll still be yammering away about the wonders of Las Vegas, my beloved Mojave, and Nevada in general. Not to mention my adventures in aunthood.

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These two are some of my favorite people, “Aunt Crystal” is one of my favorite identities, and I won’t be disappearing from their lives anytime soon!

***Please note: I’m not getting paid by Ethel M for this, and not one of the links here is an affiliate link. I just love Ethel M to bits.***

Ethel M is one of my favorite spots in Las Vegas for taking visitors. It’s off the Strip, for one thing, so it’s less stimulating without losing the sense of novelty. And it’s got something for everybody: chocolate tastings (with or without wine pairings), a self-guided factory tour (for those who like peeks behind the scenes), Vegas pride (whether you want a commemorative Golden Knights hockey puck made of solid dark chocolate or just a very tasty assortment in a commemorative box), and the largest botanical cactus garden in Nevada (for nature-lovers who didn’t realize how many different cacti there were in the world).

On top of all that, it’s close enough to the airport for excellent close-up views of planes taking off and landing (one visitor from last year works for Boeing; he could’ve sat in the cactus garden admiring planes for hours).

So, during this most recent visit, when a planned excursion to Red Rock suddenly derailed due to two ill-timed growth spurts (how rude!), we decided to visit the chocolate factory instead, to break in some new shoes before heading into the desert the next morning.

“I actually wanted to hit Ethel M this trip anyway,” I admitted to my sister. “I’m gonna pick up some prickly pear chocolates for my coworkers.”

My nephew, it turned out, had been clamoring to visit a chocolate factory. He’d recently read the words chocolate factory in the name of another local establishment and my sister, fully familiar with her son’s insatiable sweet tooth, had taken the kids as a treat. Nobody had wept over the chocolate there (for good or for ill), but when the spot in question turned out to be a regular fancy chocolate shop, my nephew had seemed vaguely disappointed – and my sister realized that what he’d really wanted to see was the factory. The chocolate was merely the stribbons on top.

Well, she’d thought – we’ve got a real chocolate factory here in the valley, too.

So, driving past the Strip off to Henderson, everyone was happy.

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Streets signs in the cactus garden. Can’t have visitors forgetting where they are!

I’ve probably visited Ethel M’s self-guided chocolate factory tour around ten times. Tour is, in my opinion, overselling things a bit. It’s a straight shot along a wide hallway towards the chocolate shop. In the beginning, a smiling attendant presents everyone with a complimentary chocolate coin of their preference: white, milk, or dark. Then, you walk at your own pace down the hallway, peering through an enormous panoramic window-wall to your left, beyond which the factory bustles along on its own schedule. Signs hang over the various machines and information is printed in crisp vinyl lettering on the window itself. So – not what I’d normally call a tour, but engaging and thorough nonetheless, and without the need for any parents to shriek don’t touch that when temptation inevitably overcomes judgment.

On past visits, I’ve paced through the tour portion fairly quickly, eager to get to the chocolate shop itself, where some of my favorite chocolates await (dark chocolate cinnamon truffles, if you must know). But this particular visit was different. The kids, always intensely curious and full of questions, wanted to look at the factory.

So we grown-ups, me and my sister and her husband, walked slowly, reading the vinyl text out loud and pointing out the machines they were describing. That machine could have up to 1,000 pounds of chocolate inside at a time. See over there? They’re making nut brittle right now, and when it’s cooled off, they’ll chop that big pile into small pieces. We don’t make that much candy at a time at home, do we? Hey look – these tables have special water pipes inside to cool the chocolate at just the right temperature. 

“Hear that, buddy?” my sister said to my nephew. “They needed a special table to cool stuff off, and an engineer had to solve that problem! Is that neat or what?”

My nephew nodded, entranced, a huge grin over his little face.

Every time I visit Ethel M, the experience is completely different. My companions change everything. And all the more joy for me on this occasion, because my nephew’s a tough nut to crack in terms of bonding.

I’ve written about his sister before. She’s an extrovert, like her mother, only with an over-the-top melodramatic soul that reminds me of myself: all of which is to say that even if you don’t want to get to know her, she’ll probably make you. (Seriously. She’ll literally grab your face and make you.)

But my nephew’s an introvert like his father, and like me – and, frankly, like most of his adult relatives. He’s a gentle, quiet, withdrawing sort of soul who loves what he loves deeply, privately, and with restrained and intense focus.

Sometimes I think the best gift I can give him is to distract his sister long enough for him to build a complete Lego machine in peace!

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I’m so proud of this photo. Probably one of the better photos I’ve ever taken. This is all one cactus! Note the twinkle lights in the top right corner – did I forget to mention Ethel M’s cactus garden has light displays for Christmas and Valentine’s Day?

But my nephew, like my niece, is full of bright, giggling personality all the same – it’s just harder to get at. A relationship with him won’t just happen by accident. It requires a bit more intention, more finesse, more cultivation. You’ve got to pay attention to him without harassing him with questions about his inner life, his thoughts, or his overall wellbeing.

I’m just gonna say it: loving him is kind of like growing a cactus. A lot of the hardest work is leaving him alone and letting him grow. (I know, I know. That’s the corniest I’ll get for today!)

When it comes to Ethel M’s, Aunt Crystal is less into the factory and more in it for the chocolate itself and the cactus garden – the meandering paved paths, the labels beside each specimen. The strange-colored, the barrel-shaped, the spindly, the towering, the sprawling, the flat, the floral, the fruiting. So much variety, all evolving for some of the world’s most forbidding climates. They’re beautiful – simply, starkly, everlastingly beautiful.

But then, if you’re me, so is chocolate.

‘Nuff said.

What’s your go-to spot for taking out-of-towners? Why there? Do you ever visit on your own? Please share in the comments below!

As you’ve probably guessed from my sporadic schedule, I’m still struggling to figure out the balance between my full-time workload, my commute, my blogging, my relationships, my home life, and my other projects. Thank you to everyone who is bearing with me! As I hit the first anniversary of launching Crystal Witnesses Wonders, I’m so grateful to every one of my readers for your part in my journey. Thank you all!

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Happy witnessing!

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