Let’s face it, Las Vegas has a certain reputation. It puts off as many people as it attracts. But whatever your impression, however pejorative or snobbish, by the end of this article I’m hoping to have changed that. This is about how to do Vegas…without ‘doing’ Vegas.
Admittedly, it didn’t have the most auspicious start. And that began at Heathrow. A large group at the gate, bedecked in matching T-shirts, spurred by excitement and Prosecco, grew in boisterousness on the plane – until fatigue, fortunately, kicked in. It seems Vegas can wear you out before you’ve even started.
Then it’s about the lights. The flashing neon, the blinking, twinkling, dazzling from the hotels, the monstrous billboards, the fountains of the Bellagio, even flames dancing from the walls of the Mirage; it’s a good time to arrive, at night, turning onto the Strip. It’s enough of an introduction, like stepping into a movie montage, but it’s not what I’m here for.
The better impression comes the next morning. Those mountains you see in the distance when you pull your curtains back, offer an enticing view to a better offer; beyond the city. Las Vegas is a solid starting point for touring; whether it’s into southern Utah, the Mojave desert, a tour of Red Rock Canyon in a pink 4×4, or, first things first, a rafting trip down the Colorado River, and something that arguably is far more mind-blowing than a mini St Mark’s Square in the Venetian: the Hoover Dam.
From Lake Mead, about 45 minutes outside the city, we follow the original road carrying the construction workers in the 1930s, down to the bottom of the canyon, and board our raft (a modest description for a motorised inflatable) to the base of the dam. No photo or film quite does it justice, even from a distance. It’s 220m high and over 200m thick at the base. More impressive is the bridge above it, completed in 2010, framing the dam with the canyon walls.
It’s a surprisingly peaceful, even eerie spectacle, in sharp contrast to the bright lights and bustle of the city, animated by an insightful tour by our guide, Kathleen – granddaughter of one of the original workers – and the occasional diving cormorant. Then it’s down the river, coasting with the current, the canyon walls looming either side, black and white buffleheads taking flight, groups of schooling coot, ringnecks, and red-tail hawks – and the thrill of a bald eagle high on a promontory – Kathleen calling them out and other topographical detail as we go. I ask after the name of a prominent, distinctive ridge directly ahead, “It doesn’t have a name,” she says, “it’s almost hidden from every other perspective. We’ll name it after you.” Toby’s Ridge it is.
From the Mojave lake, our end point, we drive back through striking landscape, with tors and promontories galore punctuating the semi-lunar vista, atop the main highway from the Arizona side, back into Nevada – and we’re back in the city.
As I take in the sights and sounds of the city, what’s evident is that Las Vegas has moved into a new era; when I last visited over a decade ago, the emphasis was still on themed hotels, giving it the whole ‘adult Disneyland’ feel. That can still be indulged, Caesar’s Palace is still a signature property on the Strip, the Paris, Venetian and New York are all thriving, but they’ve now been superseded by the super hotels, all trying to outdo the one before; the Cosmopoliton dwarfs the Bellagio next door, and features an extraordinary ‘chandelier’ bar. The Aria, with its leaning towers, owns the largest footprint in the middle of the Strip, such that it’s referred to as the ‘city centre’ and runs its own light rail between buildings.
The newest on the block is my chosen spot; the Conrad at Resorts World, at the far end of the Strip – and features what must be the biggest billboard on the planet: its entire fascia. Martians are likely now aware of Katy Perry’s residence in the city. And it’s from here I take a different approach to seeing the sights. My visit coincides – nay, was planned – with the ‘Rock & Roll’ run, part of a half marathon series featured in various States. This one closes off the Strip, providing the course for the race, and takes you from one end to the other.
Far from negotiating traffic, let alone waiting in it, as I trot my way through the 10k (I know, but it’s not cheating), this is a very different perspective; giving a sense of place, stopping for selfies at landmarks (that sign), and all with the encouragement of a crowd lining the streets. Stiff-limbed and sore-footed, but running on adrenaline all the way back to the Awana spa at the Conrad, I was clutching my finisher’s medal with glee – and bracing myself for an equally different approach to dinner that evening; a ‘Lip-Smacking Foodie Tour‘.
There are food tours, but not like this. This is Vegas, after all, and everything scales up. As I arrive at the start, the lobby of the Aria, I’m surprised it appears I have about 40 dining companions. We’re rallied by our host, the very ebullient Tom, serving as a tour guide, talking up all the high points and furnishing us with factoids en route.
First stop, Javiers, for a signature piña margarita, and his famous enchilada. But it’s the salsas and tortillas that do it for me. Next, tapas at Julian Serrano. Two stops in and I’m already replete, but there’s a conviviality to proceedings. And by the time we’re having steak and burrata at Bardot I have 40 new best friends. All this sounds painfully un-British, but it’s a huge hit. It’s rare that you can get a table at the chosen restaurants, sample the signature dishes and join convivial company, never more enlivened with a chorus or two of happy birthday and a couple of our company who had enjoyed the bar beforehand.
But when it comes to food, there must be one Vegas institution that needs to be seen – and sampled – to be believed: buffet. And few buffets draw as much choice – and queues – as Wicked Spoon in the Cosmopolitan. To say one’s cup runneth over is an understatement; the counters must be a mile long, and stock everything you might wish for. You want king crab? There’s piles of it. Every conceivable continental pastry in Christendom? And more. Buffalo wings for breakfast? Name your sauce.
But then not everything about Vegas needs to be about excess; Crossroads, at the Conrad, is a merciful relief from the gargantuan slabs of meat the size of dinner plates, being exclusively vegan. Although you wouldn’t think it looking at the menu; everything stacks up like any other conventional Mediterranean restaurant. ‘Impossible’ meatballs, calamari, lasagne and a cheese plate; all vegan – and no discernible difference. I should introduce it to my father-in-law.
What’s extraordinary about Las Vegas is not just that it’s the confluence of everything that’s excessive, it’s the confluence of everything that excels; every talent, whatever the discipline, wants their spot at Vegas, from chefs to designers to singers to architects, there’s no denying creativity transcends in every form here. And then the lily is gilded for good measure.
Las Vegas attracts short of half a million visitors from the UK each year, it is the third most visited city by Brits in the United States. And it’s fascinating hearing everyone’s stories about it; from the groups ‘on tour’ to the couple on the plane that come for a week every year and pack in the shows, but it’s perhaps best summed up by the diner I sat next to at Javiers and asked has it changed. “Oh, yeah,” she replied, “but only if you want it to.”
Las Vegas, it seems, can be all things to everyone.
How to get there: see ba.com or virginatlantic.com for direct flights from London Heathrow to Las Vegas.
Rooms at Resorts World Las Vegas start at £110. Hoover Dam Rafting Adventures are £105 per person plus National Park entrance fee. Savors of the Strip Lip Smacking Foodie Tours from £165 per person.
For more information about Las Vegas, and to start planning your trip, please visit visitlasvegas.com and lvcva.com.
Header photo: Las Vegas sign (photo by Grant Cai, courtesy of Unsplash)