All photos by Bob Leahy
It was my partner’s birthday last week, one with a big zero in it, so his choice to celebrate with friends was in Las Vegas. Fine with me. Been there before. It’s a fun place. Let's go!
First off let’s get the money thing out of the way. Vacation packages to Las Vegas can be cheap, cheap, cheap, particularly if you avoid the fanciest hotels (and Vegas hotels can be very fancy.). We stayed at the Tropicana – turned out it’s 4-star, one of the original mob-controlled hotels that has since gone respectable and also undergone a renovation to give it a bit of pseudo-Latin glam without being over the top. The price is right - and so it's recommended here. It’s on the fabled strip too, so everything is walkable, although at 4.5 miles long be prepared for a lot of walking. In summer that means 40C heat.
Told them it was my partner’s birthday with a big zero and we got a free room upgrade. (Lying would probably work too. This is Sin City after all.)
Now I know at least 50% of you will be turning your noses up at even the thought of going to Vegas. It’s tacky, right? Don’t like glitz for days, crowds, gambling and Donny and Marie? I get that. But Vegas works hard at being an adult playground with something for everyone, an improbable outpost in the middle of the Nevada desert whose appeal has stood the test of time. Vegas knows how to win you over. Once there, it’s mighty hard not to fall for its glitzy charm.
It’s hard to even think about being poz here, so much is there to distract. Mind you, you will be surrounded by (straight) Middle America but one could be forgiven for deciding that gays on acid designed this place. So there's that.
For me, the appeal indeed lies largely in the eye-popping visuals that surround you. Tacky or not, the convergence of the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Roman Coliseum, just for starters, all in a few short blocks, plus indisputably the most amazing display of neon on the planet is not as dreadful as it sounds but arguably the most eye-popping place on Earth.
You’ll soon figure out that Vegas Is a place that celebrates excess of all kinds not just the visual. Eating for example is big here. But budget conscious travellers beware. There remain few of the bargains that Vegas was once famous for. True, a bit of searching will find yourself a $3.99 gargantuan shrimp cocktail or an $11.99 steak and lobster dinner if you know where to look (ask me.). But the fabled buffets – a Vegas culinary staple that can be surprisingly good are not cheap. Our birthday-boy dinner buffet at Caesar’s Place was US $51. In fact almost everything you will buy in Vegas is way more expensive than back home.
I have nothing against gambling and in Vegas that’s good because there is a casino on every corner. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they are huge, noisy, garish, smoky – and a must see. Spend a little (there are many, many penny slots) – or a lot and the chances are you will lose. Casinos are designed that way. But many of the games are both elaborate and entertaining – I fell in love with an eye-popping 3D Egyptian themed game that kept me entertained for hours.
Now partner and I happen to love the desert; it’s so foreign to the green of our southern Ontario landscape You won’t see much of the desert form the strip – Vegas is a sprawling metropolis surrounded by it – but go see it if you have never seen desert before. You will be awed. Go too to see the Hoover Dam (impressive) or the Grand Canyon (over the top amazing), the latter day-excursion will cost you about $100 but money well spent. Or splurge, and I do mean splurge, and take the helicopter trip which lands on the canyon floor for a champagne breakfast for a once-in-a lifetime experience that’s worth every penny.
Wandering the strip though, otherwise known as Las Vegas Boulevard, is free. Everyone does it and it’s mind boggling. Step in to all the major hotels along the way and ogle the wacky fantasy landscapes that challenge the boundaries of good taste, but are no less fun for doing so.
We’d never been to the old downtown before to see where it all originated and it made for a fabulous and fun free night out. “Downtown” Las Vegas is worlds' apart from its younger cousin That’s not so say the glitz hasn’t been turned up to 11, but go there at night and you will see some of the most astonishing neon on the planet, And that’s only the beginning. I almost hate to give away what you will see but I can guarantee you have never seen anything like it. Arguably one of the highlight of any trip, head for Fremont Street for where the action is.
The shows? Ah the shows. We love them and not just because the best are from Canadian–owned Cirque de Soleil. Try and make room in your budget for at least one Cirque de Soleil extravaganza. We’ve seen a few now. Of the older ones, ”O” is water-based and is many peoples’ favourite still, but the Beatles-themed “Love” and the Michael Jackson inspired “One”, which knocked our socks of this trip, are both sure fire bets. Expect to drop $100 or so on a (discounted) ticket; there are half-price ticket booths on the strip. Trust me, these shows are good. (Tip: avoid “Believe” with Criss Angel. It’s a dog.)
Vegas on the cheap? Search the internet and you will find reference to all the free stuff like the dancing fountains outside the Bellagio which do incredible things every hour on the hour. Or tote a camera/smart phone and set yourself a target of capturing the words best glitz. (Kept me happy for hours.) Window shopping can be big fun too. Vegas has a wealth of odd specialty stores, like Stupidiotic (funniest store ever).
We were there for just four days plus a day either side for traveling. I think that’s probably about right – or insanity may set in.
Needless to say we had a good time. Highly recommended, particularly for doubters. Because quite frankly it's very hard, once you get there, NOT to like Vegas. It’s designed that way,after all.
Want to see Vegas at night? Here's a sample.