Lets the good times roll amongst the dazzling sights of Las Vegas
The skies above Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area are ablaze in the sunset as the 747 glides across Lake Mead. As the plane makes its final approach, the Las Vegas airstrip opens up; a glittering runway of lights that’s long attracted gamblers and those looking for a little glitzy escapism. Hotels and casinos, bars and clubs, restaurants and raunchy nightlife… If Samuel Johnson reckoned a man tired of London had tired of life, chances are he could come to Vegas for a little pick-me-up.
There’s little Las Vegas doesn’t know about showing visitors a good time and its brought the visitors flocking to the dazzling resort since the 1930s, when the first licensed casinos opened in and around modern-day Fremont Street. Back then they were catering mainly for workers who were building the nearby Hoover Dam, but the allure of roulette wheels and girly shows soon brought the punters in droves. Glamorous hotels boomed in the years after World War II while in the 1970s, Elvis Presley cemented his name in lights here, playing a record 837 consecutive sold-out shows at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino in front of more than two million fans. Fast-forward to now and around 40 million people visit the city each year.
The MGM Grand hotel, with its staggering 5 000 rooms, is the largest hotel in Vegas. Happily, after a $160-million revamp, the classiest broad in Sin City is looking fit and trim. In the evenings, as the city starts waking up, hordes of punters seem to file through the lobby on their way to the gaming floor. But perhaps they could they be on their way out of the David Copperfield show, or grabbing an early table at acclaimed nightclub Hakkasan? Or maybe they’re having a late dinner at one of Michelin-star chef Joël Robuchon’s restaurants in the hotel? Oh yes, there’s so much choice in Vegas and it’s unashamedly all about having a Very Good Time, but that doesn’t have to mean getting drunk on foot-long beer bongs, throwing away your cash on the blackjack tables and getting hitched in the chapel downtown. Las Vegas may have built its reputation as ‘Sin City’, a bubble where any and many misdeeds ‘stay in Vegas’, but there is more to the city than raucous bachelor getaways and morning-after hangovers.
Step out of the MGM Grand and you’re surrounded by the outlandish neon-clad architecture of The Strip. Officially known as Las Vegas Boulevard South, this 7km run of casino resorts is what’s made Vegas one of the most recognisable cities on earth. Start your wandering in the deep south, where the gleaming Mandalay Bay hotel marks the edge of town. Oozing Vegas glamour, the Mandalay is also a short walk from the famed ‘welcome’ sign, the icon that’s been greeting visitors since 1959.
It’s a must-have souvenir photo and there’s always an Elvis impersonator on hand to complete your souvenir snap – for a few dollars, of course. Heading north up The Strip, the architecture gets progressively crazier: the pyramid-shaped Luxor with its 40-billion candlepower beam of light; medieval Excalibur with fantastical turrets; the Manhattan skyline of New York Hotel & Casino, broken by the in-house rollercoaster; the comical Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino with its replica Eiffel Tower crashing through the roof… the list of eye-catching architectural oddities goes on.
After a day spent wandering around, a fabulous place to end up is in front of the sweeping curve of the Bellagio hotel, where you can admire the famous musical fountains. Even better, enjoy them with a glass of Californian Pinot Noir from the terrace of Picasso, the Bellagio’s Michelin-starred flagship restaurant, its walls graced with Picasso originals.
Fine dining is another string to the Las Vegas bow that many people don’t know much about. Sure, there are rough-and-tumble burger joints and no shortage of mass-produced fast-food outlets, but you’ll also find some of the world’s top chefs here. Gordon Ramsay, Tom Colicchio, Joël Robuchon, Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa and Alain Ducasse all have restaurants in the city.
When it comes to entertainment of the non-gambling type, there are endless shows and spectacles that pull in the crowds, night after night. In the mood for a Cirque du Soleil, Broadway musicals or live comedy? Or how about catching a concert – Celine Dion, Elton John, The Rolling Stones and Britney Spears are but a few currently on offer.
Before leaving the ‘land with so much to do and so little time to do it in’, take a trip up Fremont Street to experience a sense of the early Vegas in the 1930’s, when workers spent their wages on wine, women and the craps tables. Then take a final bus ride along The Strip to overload your senses with one last shower of the city’s technicolour glory. As the sun dips behind Red Rocks again, it’s Elvis that comes to mind, ‘Viva Las Vegas turnin’ day into night-time. Turnin’ night into daytime. If you see it once, you’ll never be the same again…’
Ride the bus: The Deuce bus service runs up and down The Strip, shuttling between Fremont Street and the Mandalay Bay. Buy a two-hour pass for $6 (about R65), a 24-hour pass for $8 (about R87) or a three-day pass for $20 (about R217) from the vending machines at each stop.
Go midweek: If you can, avoid the weekends when the hotel rates double (or triple!) and The Strip gets crowded with bachelor parties.
Take a flip: A helicopter flip out over the Hoover Dam and into the Grand Canyon is worth every last dollar. Maverick Helicopters is a good bet. Visit maverickhelicopter.com
Don’t forget to tip: Tipping 15–20 percent of the bill is standard in the USA for everyone from taxi drivers to waitresses.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
GETTING THERE: British Airways flies daily from Johannesburg and Cape Town to London with an easy connection to Las Vegas. Visit ba.com
VISAS: SA passport holders require a visa to visit the United States. Visit southafrica.usembassy.gov. If you have a valid US visa, you don’t need a transit visa to fly via the UK.
WHERE TO STAY: MGM Resorts runs 15 of the biggest, brightest and best casino resorts in Las Vegas, including the likes of the Luxor, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and Bellagio. Visit mgmgrand.com or mgmresorts.com
THE WEATHER: Las Vegas is usually sunny, but it can get cold in winter and it gets extremely hot – over 40°C – in summer.