Las Vegas is a very strange place. From a distance the skyline resembles any American city – an expanse of low suburbia with a cluster of high-rise buildings in the middle. Once you get in, however, its nothing like. The downtown area, which is at the northern end of Las Vegas Blvd, or “The Strip” as it is usually known, is fairly like any city – banks, offices, shops, and the original casinos, which do have lots of lights and big logos but they seem more or less what you would expect to see from a place where large scale gambling establishments are allowed. There is one street, which is actually called “The Fremont Street Experience,” where they have built a huge metal awning over a several block long stretch of it, generating a sort of indoor mall full of weird shops, street entertainers and loud music. It was their attempt to compete with the larger attractions being built along the Strip to the south in the 90s.
When I arrived, the first thing I did was drive along the strip from the north to the southern end, passing all the major casinos. That eerie sense of familiarity you get from going to a place you’ve never been to, but have seen from some angles many times, was strong as I passed Caesar’s Palace, Paris, the Bellagio, and the MGM Grand at the northern end. It was a lot to take in just driving down (even though the traffic was atrocious and I spent most of the time not moving) and in fact I spent most of the next day just walking down the Strip and exploring all, or at least most of the casino-hotels.
The first thing that became apparent is that despite its reputation for gambling the casinos are relatively small in comparison to the size of the hotels. That’s not to say the casinos are in any way not huge, because they are, it’s just that there is actually more other stuff that there is casino in all of them. This is why the owners usually term the bigger ones as megaresorts rather than casinos, and the smaller ones general as at least a hotel-casino. The exception is perhaps Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon, which did have a hotel above it, but it really was just a casino downstairs.
The rest, however, of the more famous ones, were huge hotels above a massive complex of restaurants, bars, clubs, shops, spas, pools, artwork, gardens, fountains, etc, etc, etc. The casinos were a crucial part of each one and obviously their main source of revenue, so they were always centrally located and taking up much of the ground floor at the main entrances of every hotel. The casinos themselves were much as you’d expect – banks of a dizzying array of slot machines taking up the majority of the floor space, with a healthy mix of bright eyed tourists and ashen-faced blobs repeatedly mashing the button to spin the reels. I spent about 30 minutes playing slots in all the time I’ve been here, I just lose interest too fast to sit there for hours as some people seem to. If you were in to that kind of thing you would never get bored, there are so many variations that it’d probably take days to try them all.
The table games were also surprisingly varied, with many tables of the casino staples blackjack, roulette and craps, but also plenty for other games such as Spanish 21, Pai Gow Poker, Let It Ride and Baccarat among others. I couldn’t try all the table games because the lowest minimum bet at most tables here seems to be $10 per hand most of the time – trying them all would have rapidly annihilated my bankroll. I did play in a large poker tournament at the Venetian casino with a field of around 300 players (and a top prize of over $10000) which had plenty of clearly very good players in it. I finished in the top 100, but sadly outside the money. I also spent a bit of time at blackjack and roulette tables (though not that long at those prices) but to be honest the greatest way to spend time I found was wandering around town and taking in the various free and not free entertainments on offer.
Strolling down the strip at either day or night you are bombarded with sights and sounds in an experience which is probably unlike anything else on the planet. The first thing you notice is the many people at various places along the street who are handing out (or trying to) adverts for strippers to any and all passers by who will take them. They fortunately never actually bother anyone and they have this odd way of flicking the card stack making a very distinctive sound, so you can normally hear them before you can see them. This is, however, the first and last seedy thing about the place (that and the fact that the newspaper boxes at the sides of the road hold indexes of strippers etc instead of papers) and in fact I would say it’s a pretty family friendly town. Indeed, there were a surprising number of families with children everywhere, and all the hotels had, on a different level to the gambling areas, a vast arcade full of games, stands and all manner of entertainments designed to part children of guests with their pocket money.
Along the Strip is, as expected, a succession of large hotel-casinos, each with some defining features to make it stand out. In between them in some places are separate bars and small shops, such as the Harley-Davidson store and restaurant which had a huge front end of a motorcycle sticking out the front. It would take ages to describe everything so I’ll stike to the highlights and general impressions. The street is always heaving with people, some in a hurry, some gawking at the sights and others just dawdling irritatingly in front of you when you’re trying to get somewhere. On top of that, you can always hear at least one type of music: In front of the hotels every bush, wall, fountain and statue will have a speaker hidden in it playing some kind of inoffensive popular pop/rock/hiphop giving the entire street a general party atmosphere. Combined with the fact that at any hour of the day a lot of the people you see will be holding an alcoholic drink (though surprisingly few are lurching or poorly behaved drunks) and you have a general festive and jovial atmosphere.
Indeed, I was a little surprised by the jollity of the place – I was expecting a bit more to see people just out for their own and I was expecting to see more crime, but in fact it was more like a festival in that everyone is out for a good time and seems to want everyone around them to have a good time. There are your standard array of street sellers and hawkers but they are generally happier to take “No thanks” as an answer than these kind of people often are in other places. On top of that, there are a lot of people along the strip selling ice cold bottled water, and it is, stunningly enough, not a ripoff. These people, who must be centrally organised, sell it for just a dollar a bottle which seems entirely reasonable in the middle of the burning desert and in a town where drinks are normally a lot more expensive.
The other rather neat thing about this place is the way that they’re doing away with the pedestrian crossing, which is probably fortunate since people here, particularly taxi drivers, drive more insanely and agressively than Los Angelinos, and that’s saying something. In just three days I’ve seen two rather nasty looking fender-benders. At some intersections there are still those crazy, old fashioned pelican crossings, but a great deal have bridges instead. And who needs stairs? No, here there are lifts and escalators to get up them. The idea of an outdoor escalator is one that pleases me greatly, something that we could never have at home since it would get rusted to a halt within a week with all the rain.
Highlights of the hotels include the Statue of Liberty and hotel towers designed to look like the New York skyline of New York New York, the great pyramid of Luxor, which is quite simply a stunningly vast open space inside with everything fairly dark, The Eiffel Tower of Paris, and the exterior of the Venetian which features the Rialto Bridge, the Campanile from St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace. The great, golden coloured towers of Mandalay Bay and Wynn are very pleasing to look at, and everything about the Bellagio is just outstanding. The main hotel is a graceful curve with dark windows above a large lake that has around it low, mediterranean-looking buildings that house bars and restaurants.
It is incredibly impressive just how high quality everything here is. I always expected it to be a littly tacky and kiss-me-quick, but it is far from it. The casinos generate enough wealth that they can afford to build genuine luxury rather than just the appearance of it, and as such the high class ones really are fantastic pieces of architecture and design. Inside Mandalay Bay the Polynesian theme is carried off tastefully with plenty of exotic looking plants and water features (indeed water features are fairly ubiquitous, perhaps as they represent extra luxury in the desert), and the hallways you walk down to pass the bars and restaurants are massively big and well decorated with polished floors, artwork on the walls and expensive light fittings everywhere. The same is true inside Caesar’s Palace, Bellagio, the Venetian, and all the other higher-class ones.
At night everything looks very different. The lights are on, and if anything there is even more of a party atmosphere. Plus, some of the Strips main highlights really come in to their own. The Mirage has outside it a large water feature designed to look like a volcano, and at night, every hour, the volcano erupts in a short show of gas fires, water bursts cleverly lit to look like lava, and dramatic drumming. It’s a little over the top but very entertaining. The real cherry on the cake though is the fountains at Bellagio. They put on their impressive synchronised show every half an hour in daytime, but at night they go every 15 minutes and with underwater lights as part of the display as well. The fountains synchronise to whatever piece of music has be chosen for that show and create weaving patterns, sweeping lines, and dramatic bursts of water, reaching an impressive height at the climax. They really are mesmerisingly beautiful and by far the most impressive fountains I’ve ever seen.
Other entertainments I’ve enjoyed have been the roller coaster at New York New York, which I rode late at night and got a great view of the city lights from above, the Shark Reef aquarium at mandalay bay which has an impressive collection of predatory sea dwellers including a piranha tank, giant turtles and some impressively large sharks in a particularly huge exhibit. Also, I caught a short but surprisingly hard to figure out magic act at Circus-Circus, spent some time watching the lions in the MGM Grand, and also took a peek at the flamingos and other birds and fish at the enclosure in the Flamingo. I haven’t taken in any of the Cirque du Soleil shows as they are rather expensive but a lot of the casinos run one, and there are a huge number of other shows and exhibitions of every kind from natural history to burlesque striptease available across all the hotels.
I could go on for a while but to be honest this place is just something you have to see to understand. Two other very cool things happened: I had a conversation at a bar with a serious poker pro who was in town for the World Series of Poker which is running at the moment, and has even played on TV before. We talked various subjects related to Vegas, poker and general gambling and he has a lot of good advice about where to game and what to look out for, and was all round a very interesting character. Besides this, I visited an indoor shooting range where they have all sorts of automatic weapons, and paid to hire and shoot an M9 pistol, an M4 Carbine assault rifle and an M249 machine gun, which was incredibly powerful. It was a lot of fun and we don’t have guns at home but they are so prevalent in entertainment I thought it would be an interesting experience.
On a totally different tack, today I took a bit of a day excursion to the nearby Hoover Dam. It was definitely every bit as impressive as expected, and there was also an unexpected addition which is that they are building a bridge to bypass the dam as a road river crossing just a little downstream. This huge, incomplete, concrete arch was a little strange to look at, but is definitely needed – traffic across the dam was appaling, and there is a legitimate security concern about letting vehicles on to such an important structure in this age of terrorist threats.
A short tour took in some of the huge, 30ft across pipes that carry the water through it, and one of the banks of turbines in the power plant at the base of the dam. A series of presentations also detailed the other dams along the Colorado River, and showed the entire drainage area that feeds it, and showed how controlling the river helped the entire Southwest. There were exhibits on the engineering required to build it as well, and it certainly was an extraordinary feat at the time. You could also walk across the dam on foot, which means I have now visited five states on this trip. Lake Mead, above the dam, was a strange looking thing. The water level was low, after several years of drought, but it seems that the water cleans the rocks of their reddish tinge – all the rocks below the highest the water reaches are white, and above they are red-brown.
I’m now just about to go out and hit the town for one last time, and probably gamble away what’s left of my money after six weeks out here. Who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky and end up paying for the whole thing!