On a recent travel whim, I decided to attempt the impossible and experience the best of Las Vegas in three days. The majority of visitors to Sin City experience the flash and burn of the place, just as I did on my first visit there over 20 years ago.
And, many think that’s all there is. My first trip, like this one, lasted three days, and left me with the impression that I’d entered a combination of Fellini’s “Satyricon” with its bizarre characters and side shows, and a circus’s twisted dream world touched with a massive dose of gambling and drinking.
Don’t get me wrong, you can still get plenty of the above. There’s no other place on the planet that has done such a good job of creating a neon-lit, glitz-filled, non-stop entertainment-filled towering city out of what was essentially a dust bowl. But there’s also a more subtle side to the city, not to mention a “helluvalot” to see and do.
Originally, and still to a great degree, Las Vegas was home to Native American Navajo and Paiute tribes, and the area got its Spanish name from a Los Angeles bound Mexican scout who called it after “the meadows” he discovered in 1829 – an oasis in the parched landscape. The Spanish name stuck, and after John C. Fremont, a well-known explorer of the American West arrived, the meadows began their transformation into dusty streets (the main one is still named after John C).
Successive leaps in size were coupled with a spread in Vegas’ fame as home to the nearby Hoover Dam – then the world’s largest gravity dam and still an amazing sight to see. Before that, El Rancho Hotel inspired “The Strip” in its early form at a time when the city struggled as a small town. Then Bugsy Siegel, the notorious New York mobster, opened his Flamingo Hotel in 1946, establishing the city as a gambling mecca like no other.
Now the fastest growing city in the United States, Las Vegas still claims tourism and gaming as its major employers. Glitzy clubs and hotels form the main attraction, and the unrivalled customer service offered visitors is renowned in a continuous attempt to draw repeat visitors to what is still essentially a remote attraction.
With great finesse, Vegas has morphed from Sin City into a modernist fantasy theme park that includes two competing ferris wheels and a host of kitschy copies of foreign landmarks like the Egyptian Pyramids. It’s a city that’s swung into its own swing, and the overall energy of this exciting, unique and jumping place is infectious. If you make the most of it like I did by packing in a ton of things to do, you’ll be amazed at the variety of sights to see. Here are my highlights from the last trip, plus a few extras for good measure.
Bet on the classics
Modern classics like the Golden Nugget are among my favourite landmarks to visit in Las Vegas, with its extravagant restaurants, huge swimming pools, amazing shark tank and overplayed grandeur. From there it’s a short walk to Binions Gambling Hall & Hotel, where you can get great poker deals in stylish surrounds, along with a $4 rake on all cash games, $2 comps per hour of live poker played, and table-side food service.
A couple other casinos, Fitzgerald’s and Eldorado, still resonate a comfortable (but increasingly noisy) feel. The old days of penny, nickel and dime slots long ago changed into minimum bets of 25 cents, and go up from there into big bucks bonus rounds. Read Carol Costa’s book, “Video Poker: Play Longer with Less Risk” before you go, and you may just save some cash. Like most people, I lost at table games, but most casinos still allow you to play until you fall desperately into your drink.
Live and Inspired
Personally, I love the shows most in Vegas. They make the town sing and pulsate. The Blue Man Group’s always keen antics are a thrill at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino. And though I’ve seen it twice before, Jersey Boys just gets better every time (it’s at Le Theatre Des Arts in the Paris Hotel). On this trip, I was drawn to a newer trend in Vegas entertainment, Cirque du Soleil, which has eight shows running along the strip. It’s an unmatched spectacle of unbelievable skills.
Another “must see” is the amazing Michael Jackson One at Mandalay Bay, especially if you love music and dancing with a flair you have never seen before. Families will have a ball to the new “Zarkana” Cirque show at the Aria Resort & Casino, but adults only get into “Absinthe” at Ceasar’s Palace, as a bit of nudity and risque humour are splashed through the show.
The Art of Vegas
If you “gotta lotta shoppa in ya”, hit The Crystals at the City Center mall, where you can buy every expensive thing imaginable. Eres swimsuits, Stella McCartney clothing, Porsche Design accessories – you’ll definitely find something to spend your winnings (or savings) on. My favourite part of this area is free, however. I picked up a free “Fine Art Walking Tour” brochure from the concierge at Aria and Vdara resorts nearby, and perused the public art collection in and around the building, which included “Big Edge,” a huge stack of boats wired into a web.
To appreciate the neon splash that this town has always exhibited, another great stop is the expanded campus of The Neon Museum, downtown. Take a tour of this glitzy collection of shimmering showoffs, called “Neon Boulevard”, on one of the trips that leave every 30 minutes from the strip for only $18. You’ll see cast-off creations that once lit up the now-gone Moulin Rouge and Stardust, plus great photo ops like the “Free Aspirin & Tender Sympathies” gas station sign, and a sure-fire fave with the kids, a bright yellow duck once used to sell cars.
Get Your Kicks
You’ll certainly get high on Vegas Extreme Skydiving, where even first-time skydivers can have the thrill of their lives. Choose clothes or swimwear – it’s “down” to you, but you have to be 18 years old to fly. Meanwhile, if living a fast life for a short period appeals, try Exotics Racing where you get real time coaching as you drive exotic supercars around a circuit.
For me, the thrill of the trip was fulfilling a long-time dream that’s the same for many “boys of all ages.” I went to DIG THIS, America’s only heavy equipment playground, where you can operate huge Caterpillar bulldozers and excavators with great abandon. I’d like to apologize in writing to James, my instructor, for screaming with glee as I spun the excavator in dizzying circles, while he maintained his cool instructing through earphones.
Nature lovers will exult in all of the wildness, not in, but around Vegas. Bryce Canyon National Park is a photographer’s delight with its stunning rock formations of bright red hues. It’s 270 miles away, but well worth the ride. Then there’s Arches National Park, which will stun you with its mammoth rock arches carved by timeless erosion; two fairly recent collapses of major wonders, Landscape Arch in 1991 and Wall Arch in 2008, should encourage you to go see this place while most of it still stands.
A bit closer at 166 miles from Vegas, Zion National Park has a sheer-drop canyon so deep that sunlight rarely touches its floor. Red and white sandstone cliffs, weathered by the elements, offer unbelievably beautiful views. Lake Mead, the 16th largest man-made lake in the world, must be seen, as must Hoover Dam, only 30 miles southeast of Vegas.
Middling in distance but topping the viewing list, is Valley of Fire State Park, just 95 miles northeast of “neon-town”. This ancient 35,000 acre park’s multi-coloured, bizarrely shaped rock formations put Vegas’s man-made hues to shame, and there are plenty of Indian petroglyphs to see as well. Do NOT forget your camera.
Yes, that’s a lot to see and do in three days. Give it a try, and like me, you’ll end up tired, but very, very satisfied.
If you’re on a power visit to Las Vegas there’s no shortage of fuel to help you sustain the sightseeing pace. Here are some recommended food stops from high-end haute cuisine to fast, filling and flavoursome:
- Start at the top by dining at one of the places that transformed Las Vegas into a culinary capital, namely Chefs Joel Robuchon and Guy Savoy’s namesake restaurants. L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon has the most comfy mood and affordable meals. For an extra treat, reserve a seat at the black granite bar to watch Executive Chef Steve Benjamin and his lightning-quick team whip up dishes like quail stuffed with foie gras or steak tartare with frites. www.mgmgrand.com
- For gutsy fare that can’t be beaten on price and old time spirit, head to Weeziana Gumbo in New Chinatown. Not big on fancy, but fun for families and our group loved the dressed “po-boy” sandwiches with shrimp, fish or hot-links, with all the fixin’s. Other taste winners were “N’Awlins Chicken”, the shrimp creole that has a kick, and some great corn bread. weezianagumbo.com
- If you’re in need of something a little more healthy to counterbalance the gluttony and excess that Vegas begets then head for Pura Vida. The slightly ramshackle downtown eatery is refreshingly unpolished and serves up some of the tastiest vegan food your likely to find for miles. Check out the Everyday Specials for tasty Mexican wraps, empanadas and Chef Myra’s signature bean salsa. The pancakes, waffles and Frenchies are not to be missed either. www.puravidavegas.com