After a half hour wait to get off the plane and another half hour wait for our luggage (it was a double-decker aircraft and the sheer amount of cargo meant that a number of people missed their connecting flights whilst waiting), we finally got a shuttle to the rental company, Alamo. Having paid up-front for the car, we were then landed with another $300 bill for a one-way fee I'd forgot about, plus $5 a day for breakdown cover, plus taxes and fees on top. So, a quick way of burning through $500 then. Unfortunately, one-way fees are unavoidable if you are dropping off vehicles in other states. The receptionist tried to convince us to pay another $280 to upgrade our "Economy" vehicle (1.2L) to a "Compact" with larger engine. We declined and luckily so, as there weren't actually any Economy cars at the depot so we ended up getting a Compact for free. The cynic would suggest that the desk jockey was perfectly aware of this, and tried to sell us something she knew we'd get for free anyway...
Loading up our gear into a new Toyota Corolla, we set off for Vegas. A couple of hours later we were getting peckish. For our first meal in the USA, there really wasn't any competition:
When in Rome, I guess.
I've been to the States on 4 separate occasions but never driven here (it was Gilly's first visit). Being handed an automatic wasn't a problem, but driving on the other side of the road took a little getting used to. An easier change to adapt to was cruise control: pick a speed, press a button, take your foot off the pedal and let the car drive itself. It's the closest thing you can get to driving K.I.T.T without installing a sarcastic computer or belting out trashy Eurotunes to the delight of the German population.
Where should backpackers on a limited budget go on a round the world trip? Why, Vegas of course! Just before 10pm we arrived in Sin City. I'd not been to Vegas since a work conference back in 2006, and I was interested to see how much it had changed (or stayed the same). I had been severely jetlagged back then, and hadn't really been able to appreciate the utter insanity of the place.
We checked into Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon; I'd booked this a few weeks beforehand, as it had the benefit of being right on the strip, but without the crazy price tag to match.
Last time I came, I stayed at The Mirage on the company dollar since the convention I came to was in the Mirage itself. Whilst the room at Bill's doesn't quite match the suite I got at the Mirage, there was absolutely nothing to complain about:
Huge king-size bed, massive TV, and all the space two people could need. There was even a great view of the strip from our window:
Thanks to the time difference we weren't as tired as we should have been at 10:30pm, so went exploring on the strip. I was expecting the heat, but it was a new experience for Gilly. Even late at night, the dry desert wind hits you in the face; it's a little like having a fan heater following you down the road, blasting hot air at you from about 5 metres away. Obviously everything indoors is air-conditioned: casinos, shops, shopping malls, etc. so you find yourself jumping into these from time to time for respite. A number of the bigger casinos are linked to shopping malls so you can walk through these instead and still head in the right direction.
Casino games are split into tables and slots. Tables have the usual games you'd expect to find, such as blackjack, craps and roulette, but also a number of other lesser-known games such as three-card poker and Let it Ride. Slot machines are everywhere. They start off at 1 cent for a single line spin and can go up to crazy amounts, such as $100 for a single spin in the high stakes areas. The thought and attention that goes into the slot machines is simply absurd. The idea is to keep you playing and spending, so the main rules they employ are:
- Give you enough wins to keep your credits up, whilst not actually paying you more than you put in (unless you're lucky).
- When you are about to run out of credits, give you a small win which means you either have to put more money in to top up the won credit to allow you to play, or cash out a stupidly small amount (e.g. 15 cents). The majority of people will choose the former.
- Most importantly, hook the player with a variety of bonuses, features, "choices" and so on. For the most part, the slots aren't so much old-fashioned fruit machines as they are fully-developed video games with a gambling element. It's easy to see why people get hooked.
We wandered through The Cosmopolitan and spent the best part of $20 on some slot machines. It lasted us about fifteen minutes. The heat had made us thirsty but we'd neglected to bring water out (rookie mistake), so instead splurged on some tiramisu gelato and berry sorbet, both of which tasted great.
The iconic Bellagio had a fountain show on to the tune of "All That Jazz", so we stayed to watch the end of it. They have a number of different songs that the fountains are programmed to, and the fountains go off every fifteen minutes in the evening.
Wandering down the strip is an event in itself. You're almost guaranteed to see something new every night, with street performers out in force. One guy was on stilts and dressed as a tree; it was so well done that people would walk past oblivious and then scream as he moved or reached out to them.
Pretty much everything in Vegas is designed for you to overindulge and spend, spend, spend. Do you like M&M's? You'll love the M&M's store with its 4 floors of plush toys, and branded merchandising. Oh, and chocolate too.
The hotels in the city are ridiculous. We were staying in a fairly low-key place by strip standards, but there are some wacky alternatives out there, and most are themed. For instance, Excalibur is built like a Disneyland castle.
And let's not forget Paris, with its half-scale replica of the Eiffel tower and replica Arc de Triomph:
Or Luxor, built in the shape of a pyramid and with huge statues of the pharaohs, sphinx, Anubis, Isis, and the rest throughout...
Or New York, with its replica of the Statue of Liberty:
The list goes on. Every casino has some sort of draw, whether its a free show (such as at the Bellagio, Mirage and Treasure Island) or free casino game lessons, or perhaps the world's largest indoor rollercoasters (New York, New York and Circus Circus). Everything takes a theme and runs with it, to wild excess. There is simply so much on display that it can become a sensory overload, and leave you with feelings ranging from admiration to disgust, from incredulity to overwhelming Western guilt; the amount of cash that has been poured into just one of the bas-reliefs or statue displays in Caesars Palace could have built a multitude of houses in Laos or Fiji. And of course, us being there was contributing to the slick corporate machine built on mob money. There really isn't anything you can do other than suck it up and accept Vegas for the monstrosity that it is, otherwise you simply won't enjoy it.
We walked along the strip to get to the MGM Grand to pick up tickets for a show the following day which I'd booked a few weeks earlier, but since it was pushing midnight the box office was closed so we turned back. On the way we stopped off at Panda Express for some late night/early morning noodles at 1am and had our fortunes told courtesy of some cookies:
It's good to know my words are charming. Now, if only they'd work their magic on the slot machines...
After a good night's sleep, it was time to learn craps in the morning. Bill's runs free half-hour lessons explaining the rules and the various bets you can make. Craps is one of the best games in a casino for letting you beat the house, but can get quite complicated when it comes to picking bets. We got given free $5 match play vouchers at the end, and decided to give the game a go later in the day.
It was almost noon and we were in the mood for lots of food for lunch, and where better to eat until you explode than one of the many, many all-you-can-eat buffets peppering the city? Almost every hotel has one, and prices are variable but generally great value at lunch. We opted for the Bellagio as I'd read good things about it, and for $20 per head including soft drinks it was a steal. I've not really been to many buffets. In the UK, the quality normally takes second place to the quantity, and places like Flavourz and Cosmo in Bristol are dire. The Bellagio was something else. Here are just two of the counters - salad and desserts:
You can get almost any kind of food here: freshly cooked ribs and steak; freshly made omelettes cooked to order; noodles and soups; house-made breads; burgers and pizzas; a variety of fishes; various types of pasta; 10 different types of potatoes; more sauces, condiments and sides than you can count; a staggering array of desserts; fresh fruits and vegetables, and much, much more. Even as someone who can't eat a whole lot of food these days, I managed to sample a fair amount:
There is a ticket available for $45 which lasts for 24 hours and lets you visit 6 different buffets around the strip. I have no idea who would want to buy that; after an hour at the Bellagio, I was ready to burst.
It was also show day in Vegas for us. In the morning I'd picked up some tickets to Nathan Burton's Comedy Magic show next door at the Flamingo for ten bucks apiece. You could actually get free tickets if you were willing to book ahead (the earliest availability for freebie seats was 9 days in the future), but we weren't going to begrudge a $10 show. I'd actually wanted to see Lance Burton (no relation to Nathan), who is a legendary magician and - to me, anyway - much better than David Copperfield. Unfortunately it doesn't look like he's performing in Vegas any more, so Nathan Burton was the substitute. He'd appeared on America's Got Talent and was clearly just starting out in Vegas which may explain the pricing, but he was actually a decent magician. Being a big magic fan, I'm familiar with a lot of the big stage tricks and how they work - Valentino's controversial "Breaking the Magician's Code" TV show may have helped shake things up in the arena somewhat - but there was a dazzling array of big prop tricks in Nathan's show which I'd be hard-pressed to explain. He was also joined by a guy doing some Stomp-style theatrics at the start, along with Jeff Civillico who was more of a juggler, and both were good. At an hour and a quarter, it's certainly better value than a couple of spins of a roulette wheel or throws of the dice.
Speaking of which, as we had a couple of hours to kill before the next show, we decided to use the match play vouchers we'd got in the morning to try our luck at craps. We put down $20 and the voucher (which matches your bet up to $5), rolled a few times, lost, put down another $20, rolled a few more times, lost, and walked away bemused. The whole experience lasted approximately 2 minutes. It taught us a few things:
1.) If you want to bet on craps, you need to make use of the side bets or you won't get anywhere.
2.) If you want to bet on craps (or any table game), you need to have a decent bankroll as you will burn through cash like crazy.
3.) If you want to bet on craps, you need to be able to throw the dice. We crapped out on first throws at least three times. I was half tempted to start inspecting the dice.
A sharp lesson, which was probably better for us in the long run as it was a stark reminder of how dangerous table games can be; if we'd won a bit, we'd likely have been tempted to keep playing and possibly lost more.
Our second show of the day was my birthday present for Gilly - tickets to Cirque Du Soleil's KA. No, it's not a acrobatic show about a naff Ford motor, but a story of a brother and sister who are captured after their family are killed by an evil magician, and who have to find each other before saving the day. Honestly, don't worry about the plot - it's more than a little confusing. What you need to know is this - KA is one of the greatest stage shows I have ever seen. Everything about it is simply jaw-dropping, from the theatre itself, through to the acrobatics which are nigh on terrifying (near the climax there is a simply stunning piece of wire-free insanity where two guys on a rotating wheel over 50 feet high almost kill themselves by using a skipping rope whilst the wheel is turning...I've never seen anything like it). The real highlight is the stage. It is a feat of incredible engineering, and it transforms into everything from a sailing ship to a beach (complete with a ton of sand), to an ocean, to a vertical climbing wall with full multimedia projection. The hydraulics involved are breathtaking. I have no idea how they did it; I can only assume it's powered by pixie dust or
unicorn blood. One thing is certain, if we ever come back to Vegas, another Cirque du Soleil show (O or Mystere are supposed to be equally good) is an absolute must.
Here's a sneak peak of the show:
We weren't particularly hungry after the massive lunch, so decided to share an appetiser in the Hard Rock Cafe. This is where the US and UK differ so completely. In Blighty, an appetiser (or starter as us Brits prefer to call it) is a relatively small dish, designed to "start" a meal, or perhaps work up an "appetite". In the US, it seems that appetisers are as big as our mains, if not bigger. Here, Gilly demonstrates an appetiser of nachos with BBQ pork:
Now it may just be me, but is someone serves me an appetiser on a plate bigger than the circumference of my waist, it is possibly not an appetiser. It is a meal for two. The nachos were excellent though, and it made us realise fairly early on that however expensive the States was going to be, food costs would not be an issue.
After waking up from a food coma late the next day, we walked over to Caesars Palace. Its Roman theme was perpetuated throughout:
One of the highlights of Caesars on my last visit were the animated statues in one of the malls, but they weren't working on this occasion. The main reason for the visit was Joe's Seafood, Prime Rib and Stone Crab, which was highly regarded on the ever-reliable TripAdvisor. It didn't disappoint; Gilly ordered a plate of perfectly cooked scallops, whilst I went for the Fisherman's Platter (scallops, cod, prawns and calamari), along with sides of fries and garlic sauteed spinach. Other than the slightly flavourless cod - similar to the UK, then - it was all excellent.
We needed to walk it all off, so took a trip to the Mirage. It looks like Siegfried and Roy's white tigers which used to prowl behind glass at one of the entrances have since been moved elsewhere, possibly after one of them got a bit pissed off at being made a spectacle of every night and ripped out Roy's throat (he survived, and thankfully so did the tiger). They've still got the huge tropical fish tank behind the check-in desk, though.
Gilly is a roulette fan, so we gave that a go and after initially doing quite well we soon lost our stake. A familiar feeling, but it lasted around 40 minutes which is about 13 times longer than our dabble at craps so we didn't feel too cheated.
Whilst there's no pool at Bill's, guests are able to use the Flamingo's pools if they wish, so we spent a bit of time in the sun in the afternoon, and then went to the Mirage in the evening to watch the volcano show which "erupts" every evening on the hour.
No lava involved - it's a clever combination of fire, water and lighting. We also tried to get to the Treasure Island show "The Sirens of TI", but it was cancelled so, still stuffed from our huge lunch, we went to Paris for a slice of pizza at "La Pizza" and shared a fantastic chocolate and raspberry mousse cake from Cafe Belle Madeleine:
Our last full day in Vegas was spent shopping. We found a Wal-Mart and stocked up on some necessities (water being top priority - we had some serious driving ahead of us), and picked up a USA Lonely Planet from Barnes and Noble. Despite expecting the US electronics stores to stock anything and everything, we couldn't find a replacement x-mini speaker at either Target or Best Buy; portable speakers were either huge or expensive, and normally both. The hunt continues. We grabbed lunch at Krung Siam, where the only thing going for it was the $4.99 price tag, and then went back to the pool for the remainder of the day.
The Sirens of TI show was on in the evening, and despite it being technically impressive (a galleon ship actually sinks), the rest of it was pure titillation with the cheese factor ramped up to 11; certainly not something I'd take the kids to see, and not really worth a special trip unless you're in the area at the time.
Treasure Island was the only place we actually came away in profit (to the tune of almost $3.50) after a few goes on some slots. Yeah, we showed the house who was boss!
We drove to Firefly Tapas Kitchen for dinner, a place Gilly found in our newly purchased guidebook. Thankfully, the portions were actually tapas sized and all were superb: empanada; mushrooms stuffed with chorizo and chicken; apple and manchego salad; patatas bravas, and lobster tails in a garlic and parsley sauce - fantastic. I was driving, but Gilly confirmed the mango mojito was similarly excellent. For once, we left feeling comfortably full and not like our stomach was about to herniate.
No visit to Vegas is complete without seeing the Bellagio fountains in action at least once and after our first viewing was fairly short, we stayed for a full show. After a couple of cancellations due to "high wind" (I think one of the ducks on the pond was flapping its wings a bit too hard), we finally saw a complete performance at 10:30pm.
Pictures don't do it the justice only sound and motion can provide, but it really is one of the "must-see" free attractions in the city.
We lost ten bucks on slots in the Bellagio, but won it all back bar 45 cents on roulette, so counted our blessings and left. At some point during the night, I lost my Moleskine notebook which had been with me for the entire journey thus far. I was initially devastated as it had my notes on NZ in it (and I was well behind with my blogging so they would have come in very useful) but Gilly has a much better memory than me so was able to fill in the gaps, and it could have been worse - losing a camera or passports, for instance. It had my UK address in the front, so maybe some kind soul will take it upon themselves to send it home.
Thus ended our trip to Las Vegas. It's a city that can be described as many things but "dull" isn't one of them. After some indecision over whether we should visit the Grand Canyon (will the heat be too much? Will the drive be worth it?), we decided to bite the bullet and go. We weren't sure if we'd be out this far on future trips to the US, so it made sense to go whilst we were a reasonable (i.e. a 4.5 hour drive) distance away. That did mean a 7am start the following morning, but such is the price of travel in a huge country...