Letter from Las Vegas

BC Business Magazine

I’m in the back of a black Lexus limo fiddling unsuccessfully with the seat’s electronic massage button when I notice the driver sizing me up in his rear-view mirror. Nodding his head slowly but rhythmically, he tells me exactly where I can watch a football game and enjoy a US$1 lap dance at the same time, adding the well-oiled, almost whispered afterthought “Anything goes in Vegas, baby, anything goes.” As a local, he sounds like someone who’s seen it all before and prefers a quieter life.

 

Nighttime is obviously the right time to arrive in Nevada’s Sin City, where the mammoth hotel and casino complexes relentlessly wink their multicoloured neon invitations. Although it’s my first trip here, I’m instantly struck by the contrast between these jaunty lightshows and the dozens of grim-faced visitors shuffling past like lemmings. The best way to experience the city, it seems, is to treat it like a human zoo: watch from a distance and try not to get eaten.

 

Celebrating its centenary, Vegas – a mirage-like adult Disneyland manufactured in the desert to make people feel good about losing their money – is like no place on earth. There are few cities that can boast both a rollercoaster-topped concrete tower and a fake volcano that noisily erupts every 30 minutes. But while the cavernous casinos remain the city’s main raison d’etre, there’s more to do here than lose your shirt.

 

Taking a US$2 daytime transit bus north along Las Vegas Boulevard – colloquially known as the Strip – is recommended for neophytes. While newer properties like the crenelated Venetian and the golden Wynn Las Vegas currently dominate, the 301 is a road trip into the past between faded old Strippers like Stardust and Circus Circus. Once the city’s hottest area, it’s now where the buffets are permanently US$6.49, the slots are dominated by old ladies in hypnotic trances and dozens of ageing, jumpsuited Elvis impersonators come to die.

 

You can continue the bus trip here – past 1950s-era wedding chapels with names like Silver Bells and The Hitching Post – to downtown’s Fremont Street, a relatively tranquil covered promenade of stores, heritage neon and old-school casinos like the Golden Nugget. Alternatively, you can you hop-off at the Sahara and take the swish new monorail back to the centre of the Strip’s modern-day action. While the old Strip is kitschily entertaining, the newer casinos are the only place to be once the sun sets behind the region’s copper-coloured mountains.

 

The Rio’s Voodoo Lounge is great for its sofa-lined outdoor patio, which overlooks the twinkling city sprawl from 50 floors up, but the Venetian’s new Tao nightclub – I was there on opening night – is a real eye-brow-raiser. With a towering golden Buddha statue surrounded by dozens of tiny candles and the deep red interiors of an ancient temple, the club seems oblivious of its sacrilegious undertones. I jokingly asked a server where the Catholic theme bar was and was met with the thin smile of someone who instantly calculated my tipping ability and found it sorely lacking.

 

Craving some real comedy, I headed for a show. While Cirque du Soleil rules the city’s auditoriums with a lyrca-clad fist – they operate several acrobatic extravaganzas here and influence many others – magicians Penn and Teller have a reputation for skewering the dry-ice-and-fireworks approach to entertainment.

 

It’s hard to explain the joy of watching Teller (the silent one) “accidentally” drop a rabbit in a wood chipper and come up with a face full of blood but it’s a tonic in a city where everything calls itself the best in the world no matter how lame it is. It’s Penn who does all the talking, of course, suggesting several times that we should take magic acts with a large pinch of salt – which also turns out to be the best way to approach Vegas.

 

Essentials

 

Can’t miss: Nevada Test Sight

The US Department of Energy organizes free bus tours of this giant military research facility 100 km from the city where almost 1,000 nuclear explosions were “tested” until the moratorium in 1992. This fascinating desert day-trip weaves between craters from hundreds of underground explosions and includes eerie vistas of half-destroyed houses, bridges and bunkers built to test their bomb-resistant capabilities. nv.doe.gov.

 

Cool eats: Sensi

Tender lamb T-bone and a three-sorbet dessert served in a foot-high ice tear drop are among the highlights at this swanky, surprisingly modernist Bellagio eatery. Entrees from US$20. bellagio.com.

 

Best bed: Mirage Hotel & Casino

It’s a little passé now but the labyrinthine Mirage is still one of the aristocrats of the new Strip. Great central location, funky jungly interior and enough restaurants to ensure you can eat your own body weight on a daily basis. Rooms from US$140. mirage.com.

 

One thing we need:

A privately-funded monorail, built without a cent of taxpayer’s money. Of course it only stops at the casinos...

 

One thing we don’t need:

The carpet of porn flyers that litters the late-night streets like flesh-coloured confetti.

 

Weather: 

While summer is hotter than a slot addict’s trigger finger, December in Vegas averages a comfortable 10 degrees Celsius.

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