A desert city of hotels and artifice. A whimsical Disneyland of few rides and innumerable gambling machines. High-end luxury and low-brow fun, Las Vegas is all of these things at once. But most of all, it’s gigantic.
Everything in Las Vegas is huge. Get a bus to the street your hotel’s on and you might end up standing by a gas station beside two six-lane roads, miles away from your hotel and civilisation in general. This is where we and another group of tourists found ourselves after catching a bus from McCarran International Airport to ‘Flamingo’, aiming for the Flamingo hotel. The bus driver told us to get off here and catch the 202 to the Strip, but he failed to mention it didn’t stop here. We realised this only after standing there buffeted by the dust of passing traffic for 30 minutes.
Thankfully, our new companions took the sting off being lost in this strange new city. They were from elsewhere in the US and gave us our first taste of American friendliness, where being strangers is not a barrier to conversation but an invitation. They asked where we were from and told us about their bumpy plane landing, before we collectively decided to search for the 202 stop. Noticing that we weren’t on Flamingo Road but on one that intersected with it, we let the Americans work the road crossing before following them across and down Flamingo Road, luggage rattling along behind us.
Eventually we found the 202 and it took us down the very long road, dropping us off across the road from the Flamingo Hotel. But ‘across the road’ in Vegas is very different to in the UK. Here, it required us to navigate our way across two escalators, several sets of stairs, a wide café square and a long footbridge before we were on the right side. Our surroundings seemed unbelievably, intimidatingly large: roads yawned widely in every direction, while every structure – the neighbouring Caesars Palace hotel in particular – towered above like gilded, sky-scraping labyrinths. I wondered how we would even begin to find our way around.
A first night filled with awe
We entered the Flamingo hotel through the casino and were greeted warmly at the check-in desk. I was stunned to hear that we’d be on floor 19, and even more so to see there were nine more floors above us. I loved our ‘Deluxe Go’ room: it was chic and modern, with a show-stopping white PVC headboard and an amazing view of the Strip.
Our hotel alone had plenty to explore: casino areas, restaurants, bars, a fast-food court, shops, a spa and, most uniquely, an outdoor wildlife exhibit in which giant koi fish swam under bridges and waterfalls, while exotic waterbirds strutted under palm trees. The large garden also held a swimming pool (unfortunately closed for the Winter season), a colour-changing flamingo-themed fountain, and a surprisingly beautiful wedding chapel.
Walking back in the hotel and out a side entrance, we found ourselves on a pedestrianised street between the Flamingo and LINQ hotels. At the end of this street shone the High Roller – like a larger London Eye – and along the sides a variety of neon-lit bars and restaurants including a Brooklyn Bowl. We walked up and down, filled with excitement, before re-crossing the road to explore Caesars Palace. This gargantuan hotel made the Flamingo look tiny – we only saw a small section of it, all plush carpets and high domed ceilings, and this held hundreds of ringing slot machines, bordered by a dazzling array of places to eat and drink.
It was a lot to take in for two jet-lagged and hungry Brits. We decided to return to the more manageable realm of the Flamingo and eat dinner at its Mexican restaurant, Carlos ‘n Charlies. Steve ordered a supersized beer and a burrito; I ordered a luminous cocktail and a totally shameless chimichanga (a battered and deep-fried burrito, for the uninitiated), bursting with tasty chicken, peppers, onions and cheese. Both dishes were accompanied by awesome refried beans and homemade guacamole, and it was exactly what we needed.
Despite how tired I was when returning to our room, something stopped me from going straight to bed. Instead, I was drawn irresistibly to the large window overlooking the Strip. I sat on the futon, transfixed by the glowing panorama, watching the cars and people bustling about below in a kind of trance. I don’t know how long I was there, but by the time I pulled myself away Steve was already asleep.
A Vegas breakfast
The next day began with something we’d been looking forward to for years. Finally, we were going to a restaurant that had featured on Man V. Food. And the dish Adam Richman had eaten here sounded incredible!
The restaurant was Hash House A Go Go, and the dish was ‘Andy’s sage-fried chicken Benedict’. This unholy brunch dish is a mountain of fried chicken, tomato, spinach, hardwood smoked bacon, grilled mozzarella, scrambled eggs, biscuit (that’s a savoury scone to us Brits) and grilled mash potato, all drenched in a delicious chipotle cream sauce. Although I was dying to try it, when it came to ordering – having waited 20 minutes for a table – I left it to Steve while I ordered the French toast. Another dish that featured on Man V. Food, this comprised three squidgy, doorstep-sized slices of bread, soaked in banana cinnamon cream and fried, then topped with a grilled banana, pecans, maple syrup, powdered sugar and more cream.
The Benedict was predictably massive, arriving skewered with a steak knife and a sprig of thyme, and the French toast wasn’t much smaller! Both looked, smelled and tasted amazing. However, after the initial period of fevered shovelling, we began to struggle. We were pleased to discover that swapping plates, switching from savoury to sweet and vice versa, gave us both the refresh we needed to collaboratively (almost) clear them. The fruit accompanying each dish – particularly unexpected on the savoury Benedict – confused us at first but provided a nice end to the meal.
Giant breakfasts devoured, we set about exploring the Strip’s many weird and wonderful hotels. The first we visited was, in my opinion, the best. The Venetian is impressive on the outside, presenting a wonderful replication of Doge’s Palace in Venice – but on the inside it’s flabbergasting.
First I was wowed by the magnificent ceilings in the foyer, covered in beautiful paintings and ornate gold. Then we stepped through to the Grand Canal Shops, and I could barely believe my eyes. Suddenly we were surrounded by grand Italian buildings with glowing windows, walking along wetly shining cobblestones beneath a sparsely clouded blue sky. Looking closer, we saw the occasional ridges that give away the sky as a painted ceiling; but I nevertheless felt the distinct, surreal impression that I was walking through the streets of Venice at dusk. The illusion was strengthened upon turning a corner and seeing the canal: a bright turquoise artery dividing the streets, filled with gondolas carrying men dressed in the traditional gondolier uniform.
We followed the canal’s twisting course past gilded, glowing shop fronts to a replica of St Mark’s Square, filled with elegant restaurant terraces. It was 11am and yet, bizarrely, couples were enjoying romantic candlelit dinners out on the cobbles.
Treasure Island, The Mirage and Caesars Palace
Back outside in the real world (if you can call any part of Vegas that) we crossed the road to explore the pirate-ship fronted Treasure Island, and the more upmarket Mirage with its glass-roofed foyer of tropical plants. Beyond that was the behemoth of Caesars Palace, distinguished by its Grecian-style statues and water fountains.
We continued south along the Strip, wandering in and out of hotels. The next highlight was the elegant Bellagio. I loved the centrepiece of its foyer: a glittering horse seemingly made of discoball, stood underneath a burst of coloured glass shaped like flowers. Beyond that was a Chinese-themed conservatory, its artworks including a surreal scene of monkeys on a mountain, grabbing at large floating peaches.
New York New York
Next on our hit list was New York New York, which had my favourite exterior of them all. Most of it is made up of pastel-coloured skyscrapers, fronted (of course) by a Statue of Liberty replica and an American flag. It looks like a children’s playset of New York that’s been super-sized – and that’s before you even notice the rollercoaster track snaking around it. It’s worth noting here that we didn’t see this until we left the hotel…
Inside, the hotel’s shopping area tries to emulate the streets of New York, but does so less successfully than the Venetian. It didn’t matter to us, as we were here for the rollercoaster.
We paid our $14 each and ran to join the queue. There weren’t many people, so we joined the queue for the front. The carriages are designed to look like New York’s trademark yellow taxis, and the restraints seemed, to me, pretty minimal. From this we concluded that the ride must be quite tame, and I relaxed a little. I once loved rollercoasters, but these days I’m a lot more nervous of them – particularly when it comes to heights.
We got in, pulled the scanty restraints towards us, smiled for a photo and then we were off. We’re taken through a hole in the wall into the outside air, high above the Strip. We turn a corner and BAM – I see the incredibly high, incredibly steep incline we’re about to be hauled up. I involuntarily exclaimed “oh god!” and covered my eyes, horrified at what I’d unwittingly agreed to, which amused Steve tremendously. As we began to climb, I tried to calm my racing heart with slow, deep breathing, still unable to look. Finally at the top, we tipped over into a fast freefall before speeding through a series of white-knuckle loops and corkscrews. Thankfully, after the initial terror I did start to enjoy myself, particularly the smoother sections where we were treated to spectacular birds-eye views of the Strip. It’s an impressively long ride, and we disembarked exhilarated and satisfied.
Excalibur, Luxor and MGM Grand
Continuing south along the Strip we passed Disney characters, Minions and showgirls, and continued to explore hotels. Excalibur resembled a fairy-tale castle, decorated inside with stone walls, swords and shields, while Luxor resembled an Egyptian pyramid, its cavernous interior filled with sphinxes and obelisks. We tried to take the tram from there to Mandalay Bay, but for some reason all the trams going that direction speed past without stopping. We gave up and headed to MGM Grand.
In its food court I bought a very expensive Haagen Daaz fruit smoothie, while Steve bought a very large coke. We left just in time to catch the Deuce downtown to take our booked tour of the Neon Museum, which I’ll detail in the upcoming Fremont Street blog.
After the Neon Museum we got a taxi to the Stratosphere hotel, eager to see its thrill rides, but decided they were too expensive. On the way out we dropped into a popcorn shop and were offered all the free samples we wanted, eventually leaving with a cone of butter caramel flavour. We caught the bus back to the Flamingo to put on some warmer clothes, then caught the free shuttle bus from Ballys to the Rio, where we had tickets to see magic duo Penn and Teller.
Feasting and magic
We had a choice of dinner venues at the Rio, but limited time in which to eat. Our first choice, the American Bar and Grill, had a long queue for tables so we plumped instead for the safer but more expensive option of the Carnival World Buffet.
For the first time in my life, ‘world buffet’ was not an exaggeration! The food counters seemed to go on forever, the food’s nationality shifting continuously, while chefs stood behind them tirelessly cooked more, wafting amazing smells into the air. I couldn’t believe how much there was to choose from, and, despite exercising considerable restraint to avoid grabbing one of everything, by the time I reached the Chinese section my plate was full. The waitress brought our included soft drinks of choice to the table.
I made sure to leave a tiny bit of room for dessert. A central island held a gelato counter and rows upon rows of tiny cream cakes, parfaits, and slices of cheesecake, from which I chose three small items. With 15 minutes to go, we left to go find the Penn & Teller box office and theatre.
We were delighted to find our seats at the very front of the mezzanine level, possibly because I booked them on Viator a few months back. I don’t want to ruin any surprises so I’ll just say that the show was brilliant, with a considerable amount of audience participation and a lot of comedy! Our favourite trick was both the funniest and the most astounding, and involved a lot of cows…
Leaving the show, we noticed a large crowd amassing in the corridor. Getting closer, we spotted Penn Jillette in the middle, taking photos with everyone! We joined the queue and after a few minutes, managed to get a photo with him – thus creating the only photo in existence where 6ft Steve looks short!
Afterwards we caught the shuttle back to Ballys and returned to the Flamingo, where we had our final shot on the slot machines with drinks in hand. Tomorrow, our road trip through the southwest US desert would begin. Read on >
All photos and text (c) Juliet Langton, 2016. All rights reserved.