Aside from waxing enthusiastic about the size of our hotel room, I don’t suppose I said much about our trip to Vegas, did I?
Funny old place, Las Vegas – used to be a nice grassy place due to its nearby underground water sources, and quite a well-positioned cattle ranch as a result of it. Without resorting to Wikipedia I couldn’t tell you what changed, but over time it got more popular, then some weisenheimer decided to legalise gambling, and presto – tons of casinos were dropped on the spot to create the throbbing city we have today. Needless to say, the beef industry dried up along with the overtaxed water sources – but that doesn’t appear to have held anybody back.
If you were to describe Sin City in one word, it would probably be “excess”. Well that’s the word I’d pick, anyway. Even as you’re coming in to land at McCarran airport you get a glimpse out the window of the massive iridescent coral reef below – perhaps I’ve been battered by the conscientious British press, but my first thought wasn’t so much “awwww, pretty!!”, as “I don’t see why we’re being hassled to use energy saving lightbulbs and drive Priuses when this is going on every day!”. You kinda get into the swing of things though.
Probably the most obvious starting point is to say that I am the world’s shittest gambler. I think the only time I’ve ever won so much as a raffle was when I got a 2nd prize of $250 worth of landscape gardening – hardly relevant for our first floor flat at the time. Las Vegas was to continue this magnificent brown streak – we tried our hand at slot machines (to see what all the fuss was about mainly – and though we never did, we spent about 12 hours on the bloody things all up), roulette, and the childishly hilarious game known as craps. We went to craps school, as well. It didn’t help. I lost about $100 on that in short order. Roulette was our game of choice, which of course wasn’t the smartest move out. In fact, the only time I was ahead at any point was when a random American bloke sporting a massive roll of cash arrived at our table, and after 3 consecutive $100 losses on number 30, he won $3500 on number 30. Clearly buzzed at meeting real British people (I know) he saw that I was out of chips and flipped me $100 to play with. Which I proceeded to also lose.
Aside from gambling, there’s no shortage of things to do there either. Huge pictures of various timeless entertainers adorn the sides of buildings and display screens alike, with the genial moonface of Sir Elton John beaming out to passers-by, accompanied by Bette Midler, Rita Rudner, Barry Manilow, Cher, Wayne Brady and the perilous looking gnashers of Donny & Marie Osmond. A building a little way off the strip offered The Amazing Jonathan into the mix, somewhat optimistically. There’s also production shows aplenty – West End favourites like Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia, Stomp and Blue Man Group are on there perpetually, as well as a SPECIAL VEGAS VERSION (read: cut down for short attention spans) of Phantom of the Opera (even the title’s truncated to just Phantom), and about 1/3 of the theatres have some kind of Cirque du Soleil show on.
Whilst it seemed silly to go overboard on shows when you’re from London, we decided to check out Cirque du Soleil’s LOVE show, and a magic show by about the only magicians I can stand, Penn & Teller. LOVE, as with all CdS shows, is an acrobatic spectacular – however in this case the notable feature is that the music is a series of remixes drawn from The Beatles’ back catalogue, and the imagery is correspondingly Beatle-esque. So given how much of a Beatlemaniac I am, it seemed like a must-see. I suppose as with any story told through dance it was bordering on bewildering for the most part, although I was getting fairly heftily distracted by a combination of jetlag and the fact that the entire row of clearly cigar-addicted octogenarian women sitting behind me seemed hellbent on providing karaoke input with their favourite Beatles classics. It was like listening tothe audition tapes for The Incontinence Factor, or Britain’s Got Emphysema. Adding to the fun the show broke down part way in and pretty well screwed any sense of flow & dynamic that the producers had attempted to build. The rollerbladers tricking to “Help!” were great, and I really loved the trampoline dudes during “Back in the USSR”, but overall I couldn’t help thinking maybe I’d built CdS up a bit much in my head.
Penn & Teller’s show was fantastic, and as anarchic as you would expect from those two. High points for me were the Cup & Ball trick using see-through cups, and Penn’s Nail Gun trick. Pure showmanship. Another nice touch was that upon completing the show, the two of them walked out through the auditorium into the foyer for photos and autographs. I love that they’ve been performing in Vegas for 5 years or so, and yet they’re still meeting the fans every show.
Equally OTT was the food. Good lord, what a display. It’s a good job we were only there for a week, as any more of that Bacchanalian behaviour could seriously damage one’s chances of maintaining the same trouser size. But it was excellent… On the Monday morning we went to Bally’s for the Sterling brunch – an all you can eat buffet with unlimited champagne. I didn’t go for the lobster tails, but tried nearly every other thing in the place, and it really set the bar perilously high. This also set my precedent of only having one meal per day.
Just before the LOVE show we went to Samba, the brazilian BBQ at The Mirage, and in hindsight this may have contributed to my sleepiness during the show. They keep bringing out different bits of meat on swords, and continue to do so til you turn over the little wooden thing on the table so the red bit’s sticking up – it’s like a meat traffic light. And they serve bloody enormous buckets full of margherita.
Other astonishing meals included the Voodoo Steakhouse at Rio’s. I don’t know much about imperial measurements, but it turns out that a 24oz steak is one seriously massive piece of meat. Bloody superb, but like a big steaky nemesis.
And capitalising on the opportunity for affordable high quality steak (something we don’t get in the UK) we also went to Delmonico’s Steakhouse at The Venetian. Keen to avoid the 24oz Steak Hangover I tried to go for something smaller, and failed utterly. They also had a 98 page winelist to contend with. Definitely a luxuriant pleasure.
Thinking back on it, I nearly forgot that one afternoon we went to the Hofbrauhaus for lunch – I mean, you’re in the Nevada desert, so why not visit an authentic German beerhall! Again, excellent place, great beer, great food, and a pleasantly cheeky waitress.
As well as expensive steak, there’s also buffets available in every hotel and casino, of every type and variety. Of these, we went for the breakfast buffet at Excalibur – it’s very hard to objectively describe it, as you can’t help but compare it to the other amazing food in Vegas. What it lacked in quality it made up for in volume, and with so many things on offer you can’t help but want to give everything a try. Out of nostalgia for my time in Mississippi I even ladled up a big load of grits – evidently I’ve forgotten the optimum serving/seasoning technique, cos they were shithouse. Probably shouldn’t have pushed through for that Blueberry Blintz either, but ever since Austin Powers you can’t turn down a blintz, right?
Each casino’s got its own theme – apparently in the Old Vegas days it was all western-themed, until the opening of the Stardust casino, which had a more science-fictiony type feel. Since then diversity has taken hold on any bit of purchase it can find, so you get things like Paris – complete with a 5/8 scale Eiffel Tower, next to a 2/3 scale Arc de Triomphe.
There’s also New York New York, sporting Empire State Building & Statue of Liberty replicae.
The Venetian’s themed up as, well, Venice, and the newly rebranded T.I. is obviously geared up as Treasure Island. There’s a pirate ship out the front, where several times nightly the T.I. Sirens do battle with the pirates.
Excalibur is geared up as a fairytale medieval castle and Caesar’s Palace looks like a massive pseudo-Roman complex, including a fairly unconvincing Colosseum – although it is also home to the world’s first spiral escalator.
There are other not-so-themey places on the strip, such as the Wynn, Mandalay Bay, Palazzo and The Mirage – all ludicrously luxuriant in their own way.
The most intriguing and striking casino however is The Luxor. It’s a big black glass pyramid. We stayed there for the final couple of nights of our trip, and the contrast from the Trump was remarkable – the rooms were (just) functional, the elevators were cantankerous, and there wasn’t nearly the feeling of opulence or relaxation. But still, we got to stay in a GIANT BLACK GLASS PYRAMID! At night it fires a huge beam of light straight up into the sky.
And our room had a jacuzzi.
The only other thing to mention about The Strip was the fountains out the front of The Bellagio – every half hour or so they kick off into a massive music-synchronised display, and even Miseryguts Me who’s very rarely agog at such manufactured spectacle… well, I sure stood there a couple of times around with mouth open delivering a very Keanu Reeves-like “WHOOOOAAAAAAA!”.
We noticed some pretty bloody bewildered looking ducks perched on the ledge below the restaurant balcony, as well.
In contrast to The Strip as it is now, is the older part of Vegas, known as Downtown. We headed up there for a night to see what it was all about, and visually it was every bit as intriguing, if a little yesteryear – most of the signage down town is still neon, whereas on The Strip the tendancy is more toward video display boards and other elaborate forms of signage.
The main attraction to be witnessed nightly is “The Fremont Street Experience” – the entire length of Fremont Street is canopied, with what turns out to be a video display screen that runs the length of several blocks. Every half hour or so the neon goes out and the speakers fire up as all kinds of weird imagery are played across the screens. Kinda cool!
Downtown’s home to all kinds of stuff you don’t see as much of on The Strip – we certainly noticed more pawnbrokers in the area, and there were tat-shops aplenty peddling souvenirs and other assorted crap. I very nearly came away with a lovely and tasteful new shirt.
There were also many opportunities for buying drinks to wander about with – not a bad idea in the hot weather, after all. What probably *was* a bad idea was for us to buy footballs full of rum & coke. Ah well.
We also stumbled in to Main Street Station- a casino, hotel and brewery – to sample some of their house brews. I’m a little sketchy on detail as to what happened in there, although I remember that we’d gatecrashed Monday Night Football, and somehow I won a Jack Daniels t-shirt. Apparently the beer was nice, and though I visited a couple of times, I totally failed to notice that in the mensroom the section of wall that the urinals are mounted on is in fact a section of the Berlin Wall. Nice.
This post has turned into a bit of an epic, so I’ll close by mentioning two more things: on the Thursday I did a tour of the Neon Boneyard, an open-air museum of neon signs, which I’ll deal with in a separate post. And of course finally there was Annie & Stuart’s wedding – the reason we were all in Vegas in the first place.
They were married in the chapel at the Mandalay Bay casino, and contrary to all stereotypes and preconceptions based on TV & Hollywood, it was really beautiful. As Annie’s family weren’t able to make it for a variety of reasons, she had asked me if I would give her away at the altar – quite an honour, and it’s always a privilege to be involved in a friend’s wedding day.
Following the ceremony we had the normal session of standing about getting photographed – once again I seem to have managed to snap a bit of an unusual facial expression (along with Lynn & Athalie‘s wedding masterpieces).
And then we moved onto the inevitable but highly delectable meal at Maggiano’s, an excellent Italian restaurant located almost next door to the hotel which K and I had vacated that very day. Planning, eh? So the wedding went well, two thirds of the speeches were entertaining, and the only disappointment of the day was that the celebrant didn’t utter the famous words “By the power vested in me by the Nevada State Gaming Commission, I now pronounce you man and wife – here’s your complimentary $5 of gambling chips. NEXT!”.
That pretty much wraps it up for my Las Vegas trip, I think. The rest of my photos can be found on Flickr.