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In the Las Vegas desert lies an oasis of sin

PUBLISHED: 17:39 19 April 2013 | UPDATED: 17:39 19 April 2013

Bellagio Fountains and Strip at night

Bellagio Fountains and Strip at night

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Las Vegas is just as brash as its reputation suggests so it’s good to flee into the wilderness

It was the first green I’d seen for two hours – two hours flying time. The seemingly endless landscape of barren desert rock with great striations in reds, yellows and browns suddenly gave way to a stream in a valley bottom surrounded by clumps of bright-green vegetation. No wonder 19th-century settlers were drawn to this place and gave it the name The Meadows – Las Vegas.

The closest thing to a meadow once we land, however, is the clipped lawn by the mock-classical fountains outside our Roman-themed resort-hotel. The desert that surrounds us now is of towering concrete, the colours brightly neon. We are on the Strip – a much more appropriate moniker in more ways than one.

Entering Caesar’s Palace casino-resort, we are greeted by the Roman dictator himself (albeit in bronze) waving us on into low-lit, humming acres of slot machines and gaming tables. This doesn’t do my 10-hours-in-a-plane head much good so I am relieved to reach the wood-tiled foyer of the brand-new Nobu Hotel (the first of a coming global chain), just opened by chef Nobu Matsuhisa and his business partner Robert de Niro, in one tower of the Caesar’s Palace. The Nobu offers a welcome oasis of designer Japanese calm.

After a night in the most comfortable (and un-Japanese) hotel bed I have ever slept in, I am ready to explore. As I wander the Strip, criss-crossing the six-lane highway on pedestrian bridges reached by open-air escalators, I pass crowds clutching the biggest cocktail glasses you ever saw (plastic thankfully) and touts sporting T-shirts saying “Girls, Girls, Girls” and a phone number. I watch a couple of leggy young women wearing nothing much – plus feathers – receive a few bucks for posing with a tourist (male) and two chaps dressed as Elvis do the same with another (female).

I take the lift up the Eiffel Tower. Half the size of the original, it still offers a panoramic 360-degree view of this crazy city and its casino-resort-sights: from the black glass pyramid and crouching sphinx of Luxor to New York, New York’s 3D cartoon Manhattan skyline wrapped around with a Coney Island rollercoaster (you can hear the screams from the street). I wander up to the children’s fairy-tale “medieval” castle of Excalibur. Inside, it is semi-dark, the atmosphere thick with air freshener and all I can see is neon signs, men hunched over green baize and a girl dancing semi-naked on the tables, her body suggestive, her face bored. I head quickly back outside.

The Venetian is more my style. Brightly lit, its St Mark’s Square is more fun than tacky, helped perhaps by the little gondolas plying the indoor canals. The Bellagio resort is enjoyable too. It is dotted with modern art (including a Henry Moore) and has a gallery currently showing an interesting Andy Warhol exhibition. There’s an impressive coloured-glass Chihuly ceiling (and Chihuly shop if you have a few thousand dollars to spare) and the Conservatory, a colourful fantasy landscape complete with animatronics and live plants remodelled for each season.

I stop to watch a game of something with cards (I’m not honestly sure what it was) being played for a pot of half-a-million dollars, before heading into Fountains Sunday Brunch at Jasmine. Buffets are a Vegas institution and this one is a real treat. The food is superb and there is everything from dim sum to pancakes, delectable fruit muesli to meat and two veg – and an entire room of deserts. Out of the window the Bellagio fountains begin to dance to Luck Be a Lady (Sinatra was nothing if not a Vegas man). The fountains sway like a watery cornfield, turn, swirl and jump to the music before rocketing into the sky. And you don’t have to pay restaurant prices to see them – they are equally visible from the Strip.

Food is a serious business in Vegas these days. The city boasts celebrity chefs by the dozen, with several constellations of Michelin stars between them. New restaurants by Nobu and Masa Takayama have joined those of Guy Savoy, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck and Joel Robuchon among others. Gordon Ramsay is here too – his face currently projected across Vegas’s Arc de Triomphe (what more could a British chef ask?) – with three restaurants offering steaks, “pub food” and gourmet burgers. Alternatively, you could head downtown for a Quadruple Bypass Burger at the Heart Attack Grill. Or maybe not: the Grill’s biggest fan recently died of a heart attack at 52.

I decide it is time to get some sun (of which Vegas has 320 days a year – up to 46 degrees of it in summer!). Out in Caesar’s Palace Garden of the Gods, I have a choice of pools: Apollo, Neptune, Venus (reserved for summer “European bathing”– ie topless!)…I settle next to Temple. The large double sunbeds at the water’s edge, I am informed, cost $200 a day, so I settle in the perfectly adequate singles.

Anything goes

It is an odd thing about Las Vegas. Monopoly money changes hands at an extraordinary rate and yet there is usually an Old Kent Road option not far away. High rollers bet thousands of dollars just yards from those feeding single greenbacks into “penny slots”. And the $200 sunbathers enjoy the same company, surroundings and pools as those bathing free with the cheapest hotel rooms (which go for a fraction of $200!). The casinos offer a constant parade of all humankind in every style (and lack thereof) from the couple in sparkling cowboy suits to the ultra-glamorous woman in more jewels than fabric and American Joe, flab pouring over ill-fitting jeans. In Vegas, anything goes.

Las Vegas dubs itself “the entertainment capital of the world” and there are plenty of big names, mostly nostalgic music acts – from Elton John and Celine Dion to Donny and Marie Osmond – and many shows of pure spectacle. There is, of course, no shortage of girls wrapping themselves around poles, pert bums and unnatural tits, but there is also Cirque du Soleil – in several incarnations. I see their latest show, Zarkana. The circus acts are breathtaking and their settings likewise. Human roses dance around the proscenium arch, flags send fabulous waves across the stage, clowns fly above us gently taking the mick out of Vegas showgirls. I realise as I clap what a pleasure it has been to enjoy 90 minutes of good clean fun. Clearly it is time to leave Las Vegas.

Just before I go, though, I want to get closer to that desert that flowed beneath the plane as we flew in. Just half an hour’s drive from Las Vegas is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. It has an informative visitors’ centre with maps showing everything from a children’s trail to challenging hikes, Mojave Indian sites to a 13-mile scenic drive. Joshua trees take the place of showgirls, rich ochres and deep reds replace the neon and the gentle swish of a light breeze is all that is to be heard. I drink in the peace. This is what surrounds Sin City.

I do get a last glimpse of Vegas, though. At the airport, I drop my bags, go through passport control and head for the departure gate. And what do I find, right next to the door to board the plane? A bank of slot machines and a row of heads bent for that final flutter.


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