Since I'm not interested in gambling, you might be wondering why I would go to Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world, for an entire week. Well, read on and you'll find out.
Las Vegas is an incredible place. It almost defies description, you really have to see it. However, I will try. Everything in Vegas is larger than you'd expect. The roads are wide, the hotels are bigger than any others (and the world's largest hotel is located in Vegas), the food is big and in some cases, the people are too. This is a Disneyland for adults that's been funded entirely by gamblers over many many years. Now it's all sitting pretty and full of entertainment, and you can enjoy everything that has been paid for by everyone else. Hotels, car rental, food, entertainment.. it's all cheap in Las Vegas. You might as well take advantage of that. And since it's right in the middle of a desert, you can do it in sunny conditions.
As I had heard, they now take a photo and fingerprint you at US airports. This was my first post 9/11 trip to the USA and my first experience of this. Surprisingly, (compared to last time) the immigration people are pretty friendly and don't interrogate with "where are you staying? why are you here?" questions. Perhaps they know everyone comes to Las Vegas for only one reason.
The first thing that'll make you wonder when you hit the "strip" are the hotels. The strip is almost entirely hotels from one end to the other, with the occasional mall or kwik-e-mart along the way. You would not normally think of a hotel as a tourist attraction, but then there's nothing normal about Las Vegas. This was made even more weird by the fact that my first view of some of the hotels was at 4am after I got up, unable to sleep through jetlag. It can take a long time to walk past even one hotel and several hours to get from the south end of the strip (The Mandalay Bay Hotel) to the north end of the strip (The Stratosphere Hotel). You can do it, but I'd suggest taking very comfortable shoes, and a box of sticking plasters and blister treatment. There is a monorail which travels some of the length of the strip, if you get really tired. Using a taxi seems pointless, as the traffic often moves at walking speed. Some of the hotels I thought were of particular interest begin with the Luxor. Well known not only for it's pyramid shape but also the fact that it has a very very bright light shining out the top every night. Inside the Luxor is a calming mock egyptian style. The casino is located on one floor and everything else on another. Despite how it may sound, as with many other things in Las Vegas, it is not as tasteless as it might sound. The Luxor is also home to a 3D Imax cinema. More about that later. Joined up to the Luxor is the Excalibur, a Medieval castle that makes the one in Disneyland look authentic. This is one of the less tasteful hotels. The New York, New York hotel is opposite this and is quite large and has it's own rollercoaster. There are still more interesting places though. There is a marked difference between the newer more tasteful hotels, such as the Mirage and the Bellagio, and the older 70's style hotels such as the Stardust and the Frontier. I think Las Vegas will be better when these older places are torn down, and indeed the Boardwalk hotel next to New York,New York was being torn down whilst I was there. It was one of the older places on the strip. The older places exude an atmosphere of gambling and nothing else. The feel a bit like being inside a betting shop back home in the UK, and these are generally not great places to hang out. Las Vegas will lose some of its history when these are gone, but history does not seem to be a concern there, with bigger and more expensive hotel/casinos going up all the time. The 70's stuff around Fremont Street will no doubt be preserved, but I did not venture up there, even though there is the Fremont Street Experience.
Some of the newer hotels have some free entertainment outside. By far the best of these is the dancing fountain show outside the Bellagio. Every 15 minutes after dark the fountains perform accompanied by music and a light show. It is very classy and very moving, particularly the first show I caught, which was accompanied by the opera piece "Time to say goodbye" by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Boccelli. The Treasure Island Hotel offers the "Sirens of TI" show, a singing/dancing/pirate piece with a sinking ship, a few fireworks and a selection of scantily clad girls. It's still pretty family friendly though. Check it out once and it's enough. Check out the dancing fountains once and it's never enough. The other bit of free entertainment is the erupting volcano outside the Mirage hotel. Again, it's worth seeing once but it's no dancing fountain. The Mirage hotel is also home to a very relaxing selection of palm trees and fake waterfalls, probably the best on the strip, but by no means the only ones. The Wynn also has some of these, as does the Monte Carlo. Most of the hotels have a theme reflected in the architecture and the decor. This is exemplified nowhere more than in Caesar's Palace. This collection of giant Roman themed buildings dominates the centre part of the strip in a place where everything is trying to dominate everything else. Suprisingly it also includes a Buddist shrine, which was the only genuine thing I found in Vegas. The closest you will feel to the Vegas you expect is probably outside the Flamingo, as its neon sign is very familiar looking. Like all hotels, the Flamingo offers entertainment and in this case it is the entertainer Wayne Newton. I am guessing he is famous in the USA. I had never heard of him, but I certainly won't forget his plastic looking features staring out from the giant looking posters outside. He appears to have stepped out of the Madame Tussaurds further down the strip outside the Venetian. See him moving and it's even worse, he is like a Disneyland animatronic.
The Venetian is another masterpiece of imitation. Although I've not been to Venice yet, I am sure it does look similar to this, albeit with dirty water instead of the swimming-pool clean stuff that flows around the Venetian. Right at the north end of the strip, a little out on its own, is the Stratosphere. It's apparently the tallest building west of the Missisippi. You can go to the top for a moderate price, certainly cheaper than any other tower I've been up, except for the free Government office buildings in Tokyo. The view of the surroundings is very good, and reminds you of just how few green spaces there are in Las Vegas. The whole place is very washed out. You would expect this from a city in the middle of a desert, but to know it is one thing, to see it is another. The Stratosphere is also home to four rides at the top. I didn't go on any of them. Perhaps the most pleasant is a rollercoaster around the edge. The worst is a kind of see-saw that pitches the riders over the edge whilst strapped to chair that slides along the see-saw.
It's frustrating that they fine you for jaywalking when Las Vegas seems to be anti pedestrian. There are bridges sure, but some of the junctions require pedestrains to cross the road, and the wait times are ages at the crossings. The time from "walk" to "don't walk" is milliseconds and since the traffic can turn right on a red light and therefore right into the pedestrians, it just makes a mockery of the whole point of a crossing.
I chose to stay at the Imperial Palace Hotel. It has a mock Asian theme, but it's really only reflected in the exterior. The rest of the place is about as Asian as a Burger King. I chose this hotel based on price and location, even though I had seen some bad reviews on the Internet. The hotel turned out to be perfectly acceptable. The location turned out to be its best asset by far, being exactly halfway along the strip, right in the middle of all the action and not far from Denny's (diner, for breakfast) and next to Harrah's Hotel/Casino (for buffet dinner). The Imperial Palace hotel food didn't seem up to much but this is reflected in the buffet price. The rooms were clean, the water was hot and powerful and the air conditioning worked. It was also one of the few hotels I found selling used Craps dice in the souvenir shop. Quite why you'd need more I do not know. The only poor thing there are the lifts. They are not very fast, and for a hotel with so many thousands of rooms there are certainly not enough of them. Round the back of the main 4 lifts are two more that appear to be hidden, and you can sometimes get quicker arrival times from those, but not always and certainly not when one of them goes out of service. Put everything important in the safety deposit box on the ground floor and you can minimise the return-to-room trips. Most of the time, you'll be out of the hotel anyway. The Imperial Palace is also home to a 350+ car museum where all the classic cars are also for sale. If you love cars as I do, you could (and I did) spend an entire morning in here, gazing over Duensenburgs, Lincolns, Mustangs, Corvettes and many other classic and/or rare cars.
Since I like cars, finding "The Drive" near the top end of the Strip behind the Sahara Hotel was a real bonus. At my time of arrival, it'd only been open for three weeks. Since only GM vehicles were available, then I'm guessing it's funded by them. The entry price is low, around $10, and the only requirements are a driving licence and passing a breathalizer test. Then I'm allowed to choose two vehicles from a selection of about 10 or so GM Models. If you choose the Hummer, then you get one lap with it on a rough terrain course. If you choose any of the cars you get two laps (per car) on a tarmac course. Since it was only $10 per visit, I went twice and got to drive four vehicles, those being a Hummer H2, a Pontiac GTO 6 litre, A Cadillac CTS and a Chevrolet Corvette. All the vehicles are brand new and I get a driver with me telling me how best to drive the course. What's more, the drivers encouraged me to hammer the cars around the track as fast as I dare go given that it's an unfamiliar car and that 10 mins before I signed a "I break it, I buy it" disclaimer. By the third car, I was going pretty well. The Hummer is an altogether different thing, where I got to take it sideways over 45 degree banked corners, a 60 degree up/down slope and an 18 inch concrete step but at an average of 9mpg fuel economy, I won't be buying one.
Unlike "The Drive", I already knew about the existence of this before I went, so I had to seek it out. There are various rides, shops and a "Behind the scenes" trip that shows you how the other rides operate. This is the one I went on. Amongst other things you'll find yourself on the bridge of the Enterprise (from Star Trek: The Next Generation) which is a strange experience in itself, to be somewhere so familiar from TV, in reality. Unlike most things in Las Vegas, the Star Trek Experience is not especially cheap. Whilst I'm no "trekkie", they must know that the true Trekkies will pay whatever to get on the bridge and in a transporter room.
It's not particularly expensive to get into the Luxor's IMAX show, about $11. You get issued with 3D glasses (not the old red/green style either) and seated in front of a massive screen. There are several different shows and the one I saw was about walking on the moon, and believe me, what with the screen size and the 3D, this is the closest you will get. The 3D is very convincing too, it'll have you reaching out to grab things flying past. Also unlike other cinemas there's some sort of mechanical moving guard rail that keeps you in your seat much like on a rollercoaster.
I didn't forget that a holiday in Las Vegas is also a holiday in America, the land of things that cost the same number of dollars as they do pounds. Since the exchange rate at the time of travel is not too far from 2:1 then this makes US shopping the bargain of the century. There are two vast shopping places located on the strip. One is the Caesars Forum shopping mall, a cavernous big thing next to Caesars Palace Hotel. It also includes curved travelators/escalators, and the Caesars gift shop, home to thick and fluffy bath robes which require a bag of their own to be brought back on the plane. There are also various mock Roman statues and things in here and like the inside of the Venetian, another sky painted on the ceiling. The Venetian also has its own mall, but smaller than Caesars. Both feature many expensive designer brands and jewellery shops. The other more traditional Mall is the Fashion Show Mall, opposite the Wynn hotel and easily identifiable by the large saucer roof at the front. It's also home to a food court, if you happen to be in dire need of a hoagie, Wendy's burger or many of the other fast food items on sale there. Sadly, they've got no Taco Bell.
Should your tastes run a little more sophisticated than Taco Bell, you'll not be disappointed. I tried a few of the hotel all-you-can-eat buffets. I went twice to the one in Harrah's, and once the fabulous (but more expensive) one in the Aladdin. No doubt the one's in Caesars, Paris and the Belaggio are even more expensive and even more fabulous. Expensive is relative of course. You'd never find such choice and quality in one buffet in England for $25, the cost of the one in the Aladdin. I mentioned Denny's earlier, which is a franchise chain of diners. You can set yourself up for the day with a good quality, large and inexpensive breakfast at Denny's. Just try and get there before 8am unless you want to queue a while. Not far from the Denny's in the middle of the strip is another restaurant belonging to a chain, the Outback. Whilst the food is about as Australian as a Taco Bell, it's very good. They also have a starter called a "Bloomin Onion" which is a very large onion sliced up and spread to look like a flower, and then coated in sauce and deep fried. Nice, but you'll be lucky to manage to eat an eighth of the thing. It's not expensive though, well worth trying.
I eventually found a Taco Bell a long way from the Strip whilst leaving Vegas by car heading out into the desert. If you're not familiar with it, it's basically the Mexican food equivalent of McDonalds. Sadly they don't have it in England... it does taste good and is very very cheap. Someone please franchise this to the UK.
About 30 minutes walk from the strip, some way behind the Frontier Hotel/Casino and not too far from the Central post office is a shop/unit called "Discount Firearms Inc". Aside from being a large gun store they also have a shooting range. For a similar cost as the one I visited in the Czech Republic, I got to fire a Ruger and a Beretta Pistol. Unlike the one in Czech, this one allows you or your friends to take photos of yourself whilst in the range, and generally seemed a little more relaxed. Aside from a huge range of weapons they also stock those bumper stickers that read "You will take my gun only when you pry my cold dead hands from it", "warning, driver only carries 20 rounds of ammunition" and many many more. I'm not sure what to make of that. I guess it's part of American culture but it does look a bit odd to me. Especially all the National Rifle Association propaganda around too. The guy in the shop said that many of the tourists that came there to fire were from England. I'll say this about a shooting range... it is good stress relief. On the way to Discount Firearms is a level crossing, and whilst I was near it a train went over comprising of 5 engines coupled together followed by 112 wagons, each carrying two containers, with each container being the size of a truck trailer. Nothing is done small scale here.
The chief pastime of many Touts in Las Vegas is to stand at the side of the road handing out small cards advertising girls "services". Most of these touts seem to be Mexicans, although that's not to say all Mexicans are touts. Since they could just dump all the cards in the trash, quite how the pay structure for this work baffles me. They get your attention by rapping one or two cards on top of the pile to make a noise, and then thrusting one card out at you. The general advice is to just ignore them, however when I was in the right mood, I walked past a line of about 10 of them. From the first nine, I got three or four cards from each. This gave me quite a collection when guy No10 approached me. I didn't take his cards, but I rapped two of my cards on top of my pile and thrust them back at him with a flourish. He gave a small smile. I wonder how often that happens to them?
Nearby to Vegas is the Grand Canyon, Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. The Grand Canyon can be visited by helicopter or plane, and the others by car. This trip is a separate article.
Run out of things to do in Vegas? There's always gambling to resort to. In the end I didn't really have time to do anything but watch. There are many games. I walked past many slot machines throughout the hotels, and in the Imperial Palace, like so many, they're placed between the entrance and everything else such as the lifts, buffet etc. I never saw anyone win on the slots. You know on TV sometimes there's a guy or gal with a big bucket and the money comes pouring out into it? That was not a sight I saw in Vegas.. so onto craps. Craps is the one with the dice. The rules are incredibly confusing to a novice. There's an instructional video running 24/7 on one of the in-house TV channels at the hotels which explains all the rules of all the games. Now remind me about craps... you can win if the shooter (dice thrower) throws a 7 followed by a 2 and a 4 and then a 2 and so on..but only on a day beginning with a "t" and there's a "y" in the month? ..and so on. Crap. I might have played Roulette if I had the time, at least it's easy to understand: black, red, odds, evens or single numbers. That's about it really. However, since it's a game of pure luck (unlike blackjack) the odds against you are pretty high. Blackjack is the one where you have to get close to 21. Where I grew up, this was known as pontoon. I was bad at it then. There's no reason to think I'd get any better if my money were on the table. Near the back of most of the casinos is a section called "Race & Sports book". In England this'd be know as a bookies and it's usually be filled by penniless old guys in shabby clothes, hardened addicted gamblers, and even if it didn't smell, it'd look like it should. It wasn't so different here. I left money in Vegas, but I got something for it: helicopter rides, food, souvenirs, cars and happy memories.
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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2006