The Nevada desert, its dull wash of grey and brown tones stark against the vivid bustling Las Vegas strip and its surreal brightly coloured neon facades. The desert stillness contrasts with the vibrant and chaotic hustle of Las Vegas, which welcomed 40 million visitors last year, collectively spending in excess of $45 billion ( yes, that’s a “b”). With a population of only 603,000 (380,000 employed) Las Vegas is a powerhouse little town. It is also full of visual idiosyncracies. The beauty of Las Vegas is only skin deep, and that “beauty” ends one street back on either side of “The Strip”.
You only get one chance at a first impression and my first impression of Las Vegas was one of disbelief. Arrival at McCarron Int’l Airport sets the tone for your visit to Las Vegas. Upon disembarking your aircraft and entering the very large baggage collection hall, the first thing you see are rows and rows of poker machines. Its like, really!! What message does this send? Am I going to be waiting that long for my baggage that I need to slap a poker machine to pass the time? Or are they here for those desperate punters that come solely to ‘Vegas to gamble and need a quick warm up before presenting themselves to their chosen swanky (or not so!) hotel gambling concourse in order to not look like a total beginner?
With 40 million visitors each year the tourist district is busy all the time. Just traversing the 2.5km trip from the airport to our hotel took 40 minutes. The main four blocks of the highly recognizable “Vegas Strip” on which the most well known hotels and casinos are located are prone to being quite crowded, day and night. It’s a constant visual kaleidoscope. Flashing lights from thousands of signs in a myriad of shapes spelling out words and symbols. Signs in the sky, on the street and fountains light up the world around you. The neons are so powerful that the signs are bright even in the daytime. Las Vegas, the city, uses approx. 1300 MegaWatts of power per day. This is twice the daily power usage of Afghanistan with a population of 30 million people. Las Vegas, the entity however, is powered by human kinetic energy. Its alive and seething and feeds voraciously on a constant diet of 24 hour bars, casinos and restaurants.
And its all so pretty, on the surface. Its only when you drive one block back behind the glitz of the strip that you see another side of ‘Vegas. Grey and white (mostly grey) houses and low cost blocks of flats, housing gamblers and many of those working the Vegas “hustlewagon”. Everywhere you turn there is someone hustling for tips. Street performers dressed up as everything from Superman to SpongeBob, Elvis to the Statue of Liberty. The nightclub entertainment is boundless as well. Donny & Marie over here, Human Nature over there, and at least three different Cirque de Soleil shows running simultaneously. Shows by Blue Man, Elton, Neil Sedaka, and Cher available to choose from in various high class casino showrooms. Vegas is definitely in the show business. Competing for your dollar with its gambling, bars, shops and entertainers. Its no wonder Las Vegas has a yearly income equal to the GDP of Panama, Lebanon and Serbia. $45 billion! It’s the largest income per square foot anywhere in the world.
I’d heard about the shopping before arriving in Las Vegas. It is renowned as having the best “premium outlets” in the world. You know, it’s where all the A-list retail brand names send all their “last years” outdated stock to be cleared out at supposedly bargain prices. I have been to these premium outlets before in places like L.A, San Diego and Orlando and I was sceptical about the hype suggesting there are great bargains to be had from these outlet shopping centres. However, I am now a believer! At least in the Las Vegas ones. The Las Vegas Premium Outlets (North) is the best shopping value I have ever experienced. Only 20 mins north of the strip, do not miss it or you’ll be subjected to someone else’s successful bargain hunt stories and you’ll wish you had taken the time to go. Buy one pair of sneakers and the savings will pay for the cab fare alone.
You cannot visit Las Vegas and not be astounded by the sheer size and architectural splendour of its hotel creations. The interior of a number of hotel complexes I strolled into were quite superb, in particular The Venetian. The shopping and restaurant arcade is one floor above street level. Entry is over an arched bridge shaped like those that grace the canals of Venice. As you wander through the Roman colonnade lined marble floored hallways to eventually enter an “open air” piazza-like space featuring Michalangelo-esque painted ceilings. Further into this visual masterpiece, the painted ceilings are lit to look like daylight and blue skies. It’s a little piece of Venice. It begins to play with your mind, because you know its nighttime outside, yet here you are, overlooking majestic gondola’s paddling silently on a working canal, arching bridges crossing waterways, and all the while the ceiling replicates the impression of a beautiful sunny day, complete with white fluffy clouds. It’s quite unreal, albeit incredible and an architectural marvel. To complete the sensory experience, an Italian restaurant in the “canal precinct” serves a very yummy authentic spaghetti and meatballs that when paired with an Italian Chianti teleports your senses straight to Venice.
Leaving “Venice” and walking outside and across ”The Strip” you wander through the fountains and garden paths of Caesars Palace and its “Forum” . Massive concrete figures of Neptune, Pegasus and other Roman Gods loom large throughout the interior and exterior of this enormous structure. It is another hotel and shopping complex of monolithic proportions. All styled in the classic Roman era, it is a stone and sculpture triumph. It’s a visual dichotomy however, with 21st century electronic wizardry flashing all the while nestled inside a cavernous structure with larger than life size carved sculptures of Roman authority as if the ancient Colosseum gladiators and lions had momentarily been frozen in place and encased in stone. Water fountains of grand proportions abound, and the gardens surrounding it are exquisite. The football field sized gambling arena is constantly hosting a steady stream of hundreds of players flipping cards, rolling dice or feeding coins into slot machines. Figure hugging clad waitresses are ferrying drinks to punters who are completely fixated on the winking, blinking machines that occasionally reward their stares as they watch with anticipation the rolling, tumbling neon coloured electronic tiles in the hope that these will align and bring fortune and happiness.
Up South Las Vegas Blvd stands the famous “Little White Chapel” known for its “quickie” wedding ceremonies. The sign says that Michael Jordan and Joan Collins were married here (not to each other). Its popular drive-thru Tunnel of Love has performed over 80,000 marriages since 1961.
A few blocks north on Las Vegas Blvd the beautiful sprawling Bellagio complex bids you welcome from across its large 8-acre street front lake, its signature feature attraction a dancing fountain that bursts forth with thick jet streams of cascading water every half hour. Spanning the entire width of the lake, the water gyrates to music all the while shooting hundreds of narrow spouts of water high into the air, bending and flowing with smooth fluidity like a well rehearsed ballerina. Add coloured lights and the daytime show is transformed into an evening spectacular. Inside, the Bellagio is equally jaw dropping. Greeted by a doubly oversized mirrored glass and gold plated stallion in the middle of the foyer, poised underneath a recessed oval ceiling of multi-coloured pieces of blown glass, the entry to hotel screams opulence. Travelling with four adult family members, we splurged a little and rented a modest penthouse suite. ( Not one of the big ones like in Hangover the Movie) What we didn’t know was that when you book a certain type of upscale room, you get some extra benefits. Like, for example, being whisked away upon arrival to a special personalized check-in suite, complete with bar, buffet and plush chairs to rest your weary travellers bones in whilst an attentive staff member arranges all the administration of your arrival. Someone magically spirits your baggage away, and you’re ushered politely to a secret bank of elevators that only service the penthouse floors. Secret hallways and elevators behind timber panelled walls. It was like living a James Bond movie!
The Bellagio prides itself on its indoor atrium featuring themed floral tribute arrangements displays which are changed six times a year. With a full time staff of six horticulturalists, it’s a year round job tending to these floral works of art. Our stay timed to the Chinese New Year, and the displays were oriented towards this festival. Brightly coloured joyous mass plantings of bromeliads, bridges over flowing creeks, and a huge cascading waterfall. Serene by day, elegant by night.
If you don’t gamble, are affected by bright lights and hate crowds, then I suggest you stay away from Las Vegas. If, however, you find the buzz of thousands of people having a good time in a pleasant temperate year round environment somewhat infectious, and enjoy shopping, luxurious hotel surroundings and a myriad of styles of entertainment from which to choose, then I recommend you experience Las Vegas at least once. It’s an alternate reality that most of us don’t live or know, and I think that this surrealism is its drawcard.
Viva Las Vegas!
Thanks to my travelling buddy Nicole Weiss for her images of McCarron Airport and the Little White Chapel. Copyright 2015