At first, I thought that Las Vegas was going to be my favourite city in the world. Yes yes, it obviously represents the nadir of humankind’s narcissistic greed, but just look at all those bright lights! The airport is right next to the Strip, so as soon as you get into your taxi you’re confronted with a giant pyramid shooting a laser beam into the air for no discernable reason, whilst a TV screen in the back of the cab bombards you with enticing ads for the latest shows. Truly, it feels like you’re being ushered towards a cornucopia of unimaginable delights.
Once we’d checked in and gotten some of our bearings, reality then bit. When you realise you can only hope to dine at a mere fraction of the hundreds of eateries, and that you’re never likely to see the vast majority of these shows, nor play at every table or slot machine, and that you can’t stay in every hotel, you do start to think that maybe all this is, rather like the mountainous feasts laid out at the Strip’s ubiquitous buffets, a tad over-indulgent.
It’s tough not to admire the logistical feats of building an entire city in the desert, mind. And it’s fascinating just to wander around all those 1000+ room hotel complexes, gawp at the people queuing at the vast check-in desks and gambling throughout the sprawling casino floors, and boggle at the logistics that must be involved in running it all.
Of course the resorts try to make it as difficult as possible for you to ever leave. The MGM in particular is obscenely laden with facilities – Michelin-starred restaurants, a bespoke Cirque de Soleil theatre (the city has about a dozen of these), a comedy club, another theatre that plays host to David Copperfield (the weird magician, not his Dickensian namesake), the Grand Arena (home of concerts and boxing megafights), Hakkasan resturant and nightclub (hundreds of scarily young, tanned people were queuing outside there Sunday night), a CSI interactive attraction (but of course) and a pool complex containing not just several pools and a huge lazy river but also the Wet Republic outdoor club. Madness. Considering our rooms in both here and the Monte Carlo were located at the ends of lengthy corridors, we must have walked miles (always having to traverse the casino floors, of course) without even going outside.
It’s therefore easy to forget what time of day it is, Vegas at heart being somewhat nocturnal. Certainly, the Strip works best when lit up, and things like the gigantic video screen outside the Aria stand out all the more. Although most of the restaurants and buffets serve breakfast and plenty of people are up and about by then, I’ll bet far more are passed out in their rooms behind the blackout curtains or still continuing their party from the night before. One couple who were supposed to be part of our Grand Canyon tour ended up being too wasted to attend. We enjoyed as sober and conservative a time there as it’s possible to have, but it’s easy to imagine a whole other Vegas happening behind all those doors that we passed by.
You also forget that Vegas is actually a large city in its own right, as everything you could ever hope to need is on the Strip. In an attempt to fight against the tide, the downtown area has built the Fremont Street Experience, an overhead light show stretching over a few blocks which makes the whole road – replete with its own set of casinos, strip clubs, live music and hustlers – feel like a big old sleaze-tunnel. The light show itself brought to mind Samuel Johnson’s take on the Giant’s Causeway – worth seeing, but not worth going to see. Especially if the journey involves being serenaded by a drunken hen party during an interminable Friday night bus ride.
We saw three different free alfresco shows on the Strip anyway. All water-based, they are, in descending order of taste:
The Bellagio fountains – Great plumes of water shooting up in beautiful patterns on the quarter hour, accompanied by different music each time – although some (string symphonies) are obviously better than others (Celine Dion)
The Mirage Volcano – A big volcano. On an island. It erupts. With lots of fire. Pretty much does what it says on the tin.
The Sirens of TI (aka the rebranded Treasure Island) – A bunch of strippers gyrate around on a boat. When not dancing to music they are lip-synching extremely badly. Another boat full of buff male pirates arrives at some point, but I didn’t really pay much attention to that if I’m honest. The TI show – which happens in full public view, remember – certainly reinforced our opinion that Vegas is no place to bring kids. Other reasons included the endless prostitute cards being handed out on every sidewalk corner by bored-looking Hispanics, like some kind of giant trading card game (no phone boxes to put them in, I guess). Note in particular how they would attempt to hand them out indiscriminately, not just to single males but to women, couples and even families.
Then there are the billboard vans for escort services “to your door” that cruise up and down the Strip of a night. Not to mention that Hooters have their own hotel here. It’s a seedy place, and no matter how luxurious a hotel you’re staying in, a casino will always be lurking to remind you of the city’s real raison d’etre. In many ways the tackier themed resorts are more honest – anywhere that presents itself as a knock-off version of Camelot or downtown New York is at least semi-aware of its own silliness.
Las Vegas is the ultimate artificial holiday experience, and five nights there felt like enough (with one of the days being our Grand Canyon tour). It’s ridiculous, decadent, overwhelming, but most of all inimitable. One day, I’ll be back.