You count your blessings when you’ve had the luck to travel to and even live in fascinating foreign places from A to Z: say Aleppo and Antarctica to Zacatecas and Zimbabwe. To appropriately frame that travel clock, when I was in Zimbabwe, it was called Northern Rhodesia. In any case, today’s wish list of not-to-miss places is topped by Chicago, New Orleans and Las Vegas. And now, check that last one off, for a funny thing happened on the way to rafting in the Grand Canyon: my husband and I detoured to Las Vegas. And in short: what a preposterous and creative, over-the-top and interesting, good times in bad times city-resort it is.
Travel agents know better than this writer the importance of matching client vacations to client interests, and mine don’t include gambling. And perhaps you have to be a non-gambler to have time to “seize the day” in Las Vegas. I left my husband by the pool and at the tables and took off for two days to dip into the experience and find out exactly what all the Las Vegas fuss is about. The obvious place to begin is along the famous Strip, and the double-decker sightseeing “Deuce” buses running constantly on this 3-mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard South make this fairly easy and a lot of fun, especially when shared with fellow passengers seemingly from all over the country—no, make that the world. During two days of hopping on and off those buses, what turned out to be of greatest interest was the mind-boggling assemblage of themed hotels: the South Sea-themed Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino with its Shark Reef aquarium; neighboring Luxor, an onyx pyramid of a place with an impressive re-creation of King Tut’s burial chamber; and The Venetian, which links to-scale replicas of the Rialto Bridge to the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Square—complete with singing gondoliers and wandering entertainers. Also within this city-of-canals-themed hotel, the Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, was a surprise find.
And every good New Yorker must stop in at New York-New York: well briefly, at least, to gape at the mini-Grand Central Station and the Manhattan Express that hurtles patrons Coney Island-style across a faux-Manhattan skyline at 70 miles an hour.
To get a taste of yesteryear, one takes the Deuce bus from the Strip to Fremont Street, officially tabbed as the focus of efforts to save Downtown, where Vegas was born. The old casinos remain—locals almost all agree that following $100 million worth of renovations including shark tanks in the swanky new pool, the Golden Nugget is best—as they have for decades. The guidebook advised exploring the “Freemont Street Experience,” a 5-block attempt to drag a formerly desolate road into the 21st century, which in some ways seems to be succeeding. This pedestrian mall is dominated by a huge LED-studded canopy that flickers into action on the hour each night with sound and light shows. Along the way is Vegas Vic, a neon cowboy who’s been waving to visitors for decades. The place obviously lights up better after sunset, but even during the day it’s fun to see such Las Vegas icons as the Golden Gate, the city’s oldest hotel.
One afternoon was devoted to poking about the weddings scene, for according to the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, Vegas hosts around 120,000 weddings a year—Mickey Rooney alone came here to get hitched eight times. The obvious place to start was at the little Church of the West wedding chapel, dating to 1941, the oldest building on the Strip and the wedding venue pick of Angelina Jolie. Also along the Strip one can tie the knot in a spacecraft (at the Las Vegas Hilton), atop the Eiffel Tower (at Paris Las Vegas) and on a gondola (at The Venetian). The Deuce bus takes you to the Graceland Wedding Chapel where “Elvis” presides at the ceremony or to the Little White Wedding Chapel where Frank Sinatra married Mia Farrow, but you have to hop off the bus to find Cupid’s Wedding Chapel with its heart-shaped sign.
And who knew that Las Vegas was a place to shop till you drop or at least grow faint from window shopping along Via Bellagio, a Rodeo-Drive style experience resembling an intimate city streetscape, or the faux-Roman milieu of Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, considered the best of the casino malls. Beyond the Strip, the Fashion Show Mall—which recently nearly doubled in size—hosts a who’s who in leading chain and department stores. Many of us prefer to head for the Las Vegas Premium Outlets, a high-end outlet mall, or the Las Vegas Outlet Center, whose brands include Off 5th, the Saks Fifth Avenue discount outlet. Real hometown fun is surveying the gambling and casino gear that is the specialty of the Gambler’s General Store. Here, inventories include Wynn dice paperweights, Harrah’s bottle opener, and slippers from the MGM Grand.