Las Vegas and Grand Canyon - two wonders eons apart
There is something about Las Vegas besides gambling, fine dining, entertainment shows, and nightlife that attract me to this ‘city of dreams’. Las Vegas is the ‘entertainment capital of the world', the ‘sin city', and it is where dreamers and ultra-rich come to wager, play, entertain, and perhaps to capitalize on a well-earned vacation. The nickname ‘sin city’ is due to the relaxed gambling, marriage-divorce laws, and profusion of adult entertainment possibilities.
Perhaps, my childhood memories of temple festivals, village carnivals, school and college youth festivals - the crowd, the hoopla and an eclectic mixture of many sights, sounds, and aromas – still lingers on and that in turn reconnects me to this city. It is a city of electronic billboards, millions of twinkling neon lights, and glitzy modern casino hotel complexes. It is a city where money knows no limits. Slot machines of a multitude of shapes, sizes with bells, and whistles are everywhere, including airport, to entice the gambling man. There are plenty of them around and according to reports there is one slot machine for every eight residents. People come to this city with hopes and dreams of a big win.
It is not only the magnificent casinos, but a combination of the highlife, amazing shows, delicately crafted dishes by the world-renowned master chefs, mega food buffets, lenient booze policy, the sleazy side of the city, and the hot climate attracts about 40 million or more people annually to this amazing city that never sleeps. They wine, dine, entertain, and gamble and enjoy a few days without any qualms and spend about $5 billion of their hard-earned money. Not all the visitors are into gambling: they come to attend conferences, play golf, attend concerts or shows and to de-stress from the mundane and relax.
From the airplane, as it descended towards Las Vegas, I could see the Mojave Desert, and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Nevada is the most mountainous state in the US. I could also see the snow-capped peaks, and the lakes, Lake Tahoe, and Lake Mead and the Colorado River that snakes through many states. Nevada has a unique ecosystem: mountain ranges to dry desert valleys, and rough terrains.
Nevada’s capital is Carson City and Las Vegas is the major city. Lake Tahoe and Reno are other major resort towns. Nevada is the number one producer of gold in the US. Nevada’s main two industries are ‘fast track marriage/divorce’, and ‘gambling’, both became legal in 1931. Thus, for many years Nevada adorned the title ‘divorce capital of the nation’. Lenient marriage and divorce laws, legalized gambling, and licensed brothels made the state a tourists’ heaven. According to reports over 200 marriage licenses are issued per day in Las Vegas alone. Nevada is still number one for gambling.
Years ago, when the criminal (mob) organizations and sleaziness were prominent, Las Vegas had a bad reputation. That was then, but now the city cleaned up its image and transformed into a beautiful, clean, vibrant, and modern city. With the arrival of mega-casinos-resort-entertainment complexes, it started attracting not only gamblers but families as well.
It is a city in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in a valley, surrounded by mountains. When it rains it floods, when in summer it get hot as the daytime temperature can go over 40°C and in winter it could dip to zero degree Celsius. Las Vegas was officially established in 1905 and became popular with the legalization of gambling in 1931.
Freemont Street and Downtown Vegas
Fremont Street in the downtown of Las Vegas is where many ‘firsts’ of today’s Las Vegas started. From the first hotel to the first traffic light Freemont Street earned its credits in the history of Las Vegas. The first hotel, Hotel Nevada (now Golden Gate Casino) opened in 1906 is the oldest casino still in operation. It is located at One Fremont Street.
Today, Freemont Street is a pedestrian mall (Fremont Street Experience) adorned with a million light canopy, known as the barrel vault canopy, and a mega-watt sound system that provides an amazing light and sound show. This is the venue for many concerts and events, including the city's annual New Year's Eve party. Downtown Vegas has other attractions like Mob Museum, Neon Museum, and boutique hotels, and many eateries.
The Strip is the in place of Las Vegas. The Strip is a stretch of about 6.8 kilometers of the South Las Vegas Boulevard starting with the magnificent Bellagio on the south close to the McCarran International Airport, and ending with the Stratosphere on the north. It is well known for its giant casinos, lounges, showrooms, theaters, restaurants, residential high-rise buildings, nightclubs, and entertainment shows. The Las Vegas Strip is live 24 hours a day with people, traffic, street performers, hustlers, food places, bars, and sights, and sounds emulating a perennial party atmosphere.
As early as 1941 casinos started appearing on the Las Vegas Strip. The first casino was the Pair-O-Dice Club. The first major resort built on the Las Vegas Strip was the El Rancho. By early 1990, the majority of the casinos found a place on the Strip. Many of the top hotels in the world are located here and they collectively offer about 62, 000 rooms to accommodate the visitors. Las Vegas is still evolving as it replaces the old casinos with newer, splashier, and bigger casino resorts regularly.
Las Vegas is on a change course always: old casinos implode to pave way for new colossal ones. The latest ones are the SLS Las Vegas, a luxury casino resort, and the yet to be opened Resorts World, a mega billion project with more than 6000 rooms obviously to beat the MGM Grand.
There are many modes of transportation to get around from one end of the Strip to the other. Monorails connect certain adjacent casinos, and they are free or have nominal charges. City busses run up and down the Strip practically 24 hours a day. Bus fare is inexpensive and multiple trip tickets are also available. Hop-on, hop-off tickets for the double-decker buses are another way to travel up and down the Strip. Taxis, limousines, and rental cars are also available. The best mode is to walk from casino to casino, as they are close by, and a few of them are interconnected, enjoying the sights and sounds. On a hot day, walking around the Strip with a frozen Margarita-by-the-yard or frozen rum and coke, or a cold beer is another means of enjoying the city’s vibes.
Everything is gigantic, amazing, and magnificent in Las Vegas, thus it is the entertainment capital of the world. Las Vegas has more AAA Five Diamond mega casino hotels than any city in the world. The city has abundant entertainment choices for young, family, and adults. Visitors spend mega bucks to splurge a bit and live as if no tomorrow.
There are about 29 major casinos hotel/resorts on the Las Vegas Strip including the mega ones such as Aria, Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Cosmopolitan, Encore, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, Mirage, New York New York, Paris, Palazzo, The Stratosphere, Treasure Island, Tropicana, Venetian, and Wynn. Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Wynn, Encore, Venetian, MGM Grand, Rio All Suites, and the Palms occupy the top of the best casino hotels list.
Each casino has its unique identity and branding; it is practically a city in itself. Many of them are replicas of world famous edifices: Luxor is built like a pyramid; Paris has an Eifel Tower, New York New York depicts the skyline of New York City landmarks, Venetian replicates the Venice atmosphere, with canals, and gondolas, while Caesars Palace is built to replicate the Romanesque era. Hype, glamor, and opulence are everywhere. Casinos promote an upbeat, happy go lucky environment. The ambiance inside is hip, and in many casinos shopping area ceilings simulate the natural sky with appropriate lighting, simulated thunder, lightning, and even rain. There are no clocks in the casinos: time simply slips away as you are having fun!
When the children were young, during our first visit, we stayed at the Circus Circus. (Children are allowed in to the casinos, but they are not permitted near the slot machines, or not allowed to stay with parents near the gambling areas.) It has a family oriented theme, with a built-in circus tent, and associated circus acts and clowns, animals, and rides to entertain young ones while the parents dabble on the slot machines, and wager at the gaming tables. We had lunch at the Stratosphere. It has one of the tallest observation towers proving a panoramic view of the Vegas Strip. Children enjoyed the daring tower rides immensely.
Well, if you want to binge a bit or a lot and live your dreams then Las Vegas is the place. There are hotel rooms to take you to cloud nine and hotel services to pamper your inner most desires. The Titus Villa, part of the Caesars Palace comes with all the perks and amenities for a mere $25,000 per night. By ‘invitation, only’ guests can experience MGM Grand’s the Mansion, Mediterranean style villas, where prices for the resort are not published. The Sky Villa at the Palms Casino with private Zen garden is only $35,000 per night. These are a few of the lavish options reserved for celebrities and money magnets. However, you don’t need to spend that kind of money to enjoy Vegas. You can enjoy Vegas on a frugal budget, as there is a range of services from one end of the scale to the other is available. Here you have the option to enjoy sensibly or to live large flagrantly violating all prudent values.
Hard-core gamblers attain ‘nirvana’ here. Over the years the gaming environment changed: newer digital slot machines of many shapes sizes, penny to high-roller machines, and machines that ‘give away’ megabucks are constantly promoted to accommodate the novice and the avid gambler. Newer and faster table games are also featured to entice the patrons. Once inside, our awareness of the outside world disappears fast as the casino environment including sunlight, and sunset is simulated by technology. The blinking, buzzing and spinning slot machines, the carnival-like sights, and sounds, the neon, and LED lights, and graphics, overall décor, and the ambiances are specially created for extreme gambling and keep the patrons inside. The festival atmosphere keeps you without monotony. Free drinks and many other incentives keep the patrons rewarded. For serious gamblers, casinos provide special white-glove treatment including charter jets to travel, penthouse units to stay and gamble.
Las Vegas is the city of ubiquitous slot machines. Charles Fey invented the very first slot machine, Liberty Bell, in 1899. Newer machines are grouped into standalone, networked, progressive, and loose/tight depend on their architecture. The world's largest jackpot so far, $39.7 million, was won by a California man after putting in $100 in the Megabucks slot machine at the Excalibur Casino on March 21, 2003. There are many types of table games and slot machines to entice players of various interests and levels.
Along with slot machines, there are Video Poker machines, Bingo and table games such as Roulette, Blackjack, Poker (many variations), Baccarat, Craps, and Pai gow are available in many casinos. Most of the casinos provide free lessons on all these types of games. The Nevada Gaming Commission is the regulatory agency that controls gaming/casino operations in the State of Nevada. According to its rules, slot machine must pay back, over the machine’s lifetime, 75% of what it takes in.
It is a foodies’ world
Las Vegas is a foodie's world. From fast foods to ‘eat till you drop' mega-buffets to the exquisite fine dining establishments purveying an assortment of local and international flavours are available for the visitors’ enjoyment. Every casino has multiple restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues to cater to a variety of clientele. You can pig out all-you-can-eat at the famous Las Vegas buffets. They are lavish and elaborate and open for breakfast to late dinners with various price ranges. While in Vegas, check out some of the best buffets such as the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace (known as the biggest and best), the Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan, and the buffets at the Wynn and the Bellagio.
We checked out buffets at Excalibur, Luxor, Circus Circus, and a few other places. The huge number of dishes they serve is to please the varied pallets of a wide range of people. They all have international dishes to typical American fares, to vegan and vegetarian, to exotic wild game dishes and sweet confections to satisfy discerning food aficionados. One evening we dined at the Tao restaurant at the Wynn: one of the famous ones in Las Vegas. It has great ambiance with vaulted ceiling, and walls adorned with huge statues of Buddha. Our dishes were sumptuous, meticulously crafted, and visually appealing. We enjoyed the food with a few glasses of world-famous Cabernet Sauvignon and refreshing Pinot Noir from the Napa Valley. The place was packed with elegantly dressed, ‘bold, and beautiful’ people. Advance reservation with a credit card was required.
Celebrity chefs found a niche market in Las Vegas. Chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa, Wolfgang Puck, Guy Savoy, Michael Mina, Emril Lagasse, Gida Delaurentiis, Gordon Ramsay, et al. opened up fancy eateries in various casinos catering to an international crowd. They entertain their exclusive clientele with intricately created delicacies and fine wines from around the globe. Invariably, their restaurants are not for the thrifty kind.
Las Vegas is the hip place for some hottest bars. Bars and nightclubs of various types of music, dance parties and drinks of every conceivable flavour and color, fancy cocktails and potent concoction, are plenty to entertain every discerning visitor. According to reports, the top bars in Las Vegas are F. Pigalle (with its specialty cocktails, and sumptuous food options), the Skyfall Lounge, the Social at the Palms, and the Beerhaus. They all serve the usual, Margaritas, mojitos, Jack and Coke, Tequila shots, to custom crafted cocktails with hefty price tags. Their mixologists offer a wide-variety of custom-crafted cocktails with fancy names. Most of the bars are crowded with young men and women, young and bodacious kind, dressed up to enjoy the night. It is posh inside; the atmosphere is electric, with appropriate mood lighting and visuals, and decorations to make you feel upbeat and happy. We were at the Social in the Palms and appreciated the panoramic view of the Las Vegas skyline from the top floor of the fantasy tower. There are many nightclubs on and off the Strip. Some of the prominent ones, according to various reviews, are XS, Tao, Hakkasan, Marquee, Light, and the Surrender. Entrance prices to these clubs are high so as the drinks. Then there are day clubs, and pool parties usually inundated with young, chic, beautiful people. It is up to you how to enjoy life in Las Vegas in any which way you desire.
Las Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world. There is a host of varied entertainment options available: from incredible productions shows, concerts, celebrity headliner shows, circus, comedy, to adult only shows. Shows like, Le Rêve (The Dream), Cirque Solei shows (KA, O, Mystère, Zumanity), magic shows (David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Criss Angel) concerts by many of today's A-list artists, and a host of other variety dance revue, and elaborate stage shows keep the entertainment options alive with excitement. Over the years, we were able to watch a few shows like Le Rêve at the Wynn, a couple of Cirque Solei shows, magic shows by Lance Burton, Criss Angel, Tournament of Kings at the Excalibur, and a few others. The shows are fancy, mesmerizing, and thought-provoking visual feasts.
It is interesting to learn about Las Vegas showbiz history. “Minsky Follies” opened in 1957 at the Dunes Casino was the first show featuring topless showgirls. ‘Follies Bergere’ at the Tropicana was the longest running show. It is worth mentioning that Elvis Presley had the most sold out consecutive performances (total of 837) at the Las Vegas Hilton. But, the all-time single box office record goes to Barbra Streisand’s 1999 New Year’s concert at the MGM Grand that grossed over 14 million dollars. The Beatles performed two sold-out shows at the Las Vegas Convention Center in 1964.
Many of yesterday’s, and today’s major artist/performers like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Wayne Newton, Liza Minnelli, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liberace, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Barry Manilow, Cher, Elton John, Bette Midler, Donny and Marie Osmond, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Mariah Carey and Olivia Newton-John, to name a few, lived, and or performed in Vegas. Show ticket prices are expensive depends on the show and the artist. However, same day reduced rate tickets available at certain discount kiosks on the Strip.
Shopping, amusements, free attractions
There are many shopping areas on the Strip, in many casinos, and in the adjoining off the Strip areas. There are plenty of gifts and souvenir shops on and off the Strip. The Bonanza Gift Shop is promoted as the ‘World's Largest Gift Shop’. There are luxury shops purveying high-end brand name goods all over including in the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian, the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and the Shoppes at The Palazzo. Fashion Show Mall is on the Strip close to the Treasure Island and the Showcase Mall is next to MGM Grand. The Crystals luxury fashion mall is at CityCenter.
While in Las Vegas there are a few must-see attractions, many of them are free, and a few have nominal admission charges. Botanical gardens inside the Bellagio and the Bellagio gallery of fine arts that features works by some of the world’s famous artists are places worth visiting. The largest wine cellar with 10000 bottle wine tower has ‘flying wine angels’ (they move up and down the four-storey wine tower tethered to cables to gather the wine from the racks) is in the Aureole at the Mandalay Bay. Gondola rides at the Venetian evoke the feeling of Venice. The 4-D Special FX Theatre at Circus Circus and the Magic Motion Rides at the Excalibur, the Fall of Atlantis at Caesars Palace, and the Secret garden & dolphin habitat at the Mirage are other items not to be missed.
The Mirage has a manmade volcano that erupts with fire and lava. It comes alive with the synchronized music of The Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart and India’s tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. The famous fountains of Bellagio are active at set intervals. At Flamingo there is a wildlife habitat with some exotic birds, turtles, and Japanese Koi fish including a collection of Chilean pink flamingos. Circus Circus has the world's largest Permanent circus showcasing various circus acts including jugglers, unicyclists, trapeze artists, and acrobats.
For thrill seekers there are amusement parks and rides such as Big Shot at the Stratosphere (a ride that spirals, and zooms up and down producing about 4G-force), X-Scream, SkyJump Las Vegas, Adventuredome, SlotsZilla, the Big Apple Coaster at the New York New York, and the zip line on Freemont Street. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has fast and furious cars from BMW, Lamborghini, to Porsche and others for your riding pleasure. Then, there are helicopter rides, and sky jumping tours for the adventurer in you.
Nearby recreation areas include Pyramid Lake, Lake Tahoe, Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. Hoover Dam, Virginia City, and Great Basin National Park, Red Rock Canyon, Lehman Caves, and the Grand Canyon. They are worth exploring. Laughlin is another nearby city that attracts few million visitors annually. It offers golf, gambling, shows, and other recreational facilities.
Once we stayed with our uncle in his Spanish Trail home. Spanish Trail is the prestigious golf course community developed during the mid-1980s. Spanish Trails has a wide assortment - from 1200 sq. ft. condos, townhomes to over 16000 sq. ft. custom-built single family - of homes in 11 different communities. The Sultan of Brunei has a massive 140,000 sq. ft. home on 15 acres in the Spanish Trail. The 27-hole golf course is the centerpiece that features 15 lakes, streams, waterfalls, and plenty of bunkers, and fairways. This prestigious community with lush, green fairways, lakes, streams, manicured lawns and fountains with over 1200 houses is located close to the Strip.
Our visit to the Mead Lake recreational area, a beautiful resort community with hotels, and restaurants was a relaxing experience. Formed by the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead is on the Colorado River about 40 km from Las Vegas and is the largest reservoir in the US. We had a sumptuous lunch on the patio at one of the restaurants while sitting in the lazy, hazy April sun, and watching the boats on the lake, and the antics of the seagulls.
Las Vegas attracts all sorts of people from highrollers to thrill seekers to foodies, and gambling enthusiasts all year-round. It is an all-in-place for everyone. From rooftop bars, and pool parties to mesmerizing shows to mega casinos, and Master chefs’ restaurants to slot machines, and sightseeing Las Vegas has a thing or two to entice the visitors.
Click here to visit the official site of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority
Click here to visit the official website of State of Nevada
(The author, a technology professional, resides in Toronto, Canada with his family)