This city is all about glitter and gambling. And it's about wandering crowds, dancing girls, rumbling buses, Faberge, Saks, the Eiffel Tower replica, steamy sidewalks, buildings so big...
LAS VEGAS This city is all about glitter and gambling. And it’s about wandering crowds, dancing girls, rumbling buses, Faberge, Saks, the Eiffel Tower replica, steamy sidewalks, buildings so big they hurt your eyes and more neon than Times Square ever thought of.
In a fake, plastic way, it is truly beautiful. And it is constantly changing.
Las Vegas has abandoned its brief effort to present itself as a family resort. Now its advertising slogan is “What happens here, stays here.” Tabu lounge ads say: “You’re invited. Your inhibitions aren’t.” While the rest of the world has grown more sober, Las Vegas is flaunting its flashy, X-rated self, overlaid with a high-gloss veneer.
So, what does happen here? I know you’re thinking of Joe Average scoring $3 million at the quarter slots or librarians going wild at pulsing nightclubs. That stuff does happen. One cab driver said the first question a lot of tourists ask is “Where are the ladies?” Another said the first question is, “Where can I win?”
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But for most people, what happens here mostly is this:
First, you get lost in your hotel.
Glamour and pretentiousness
My room at the Venezia Towers at the Venetian Hotel Resort Casino was so far from the main lobby that a sherpa guide could lose his way. The 4,000-room hotel is dripping with Italian marble, faux gold and massive murals.
My room had a sunken living area and an alabaster bathroom.
But every time I wanted to go someplace, it took 10 minutes and two elevators to get there.
Was it still worth it? Yes.
The resort with the Renaissance Venice theme overwhelms you with glamour. At all the grand resorts in Vegas, size, sin and pretentiousness are in.
Most people, even repeat visitors, wander wide-eyed and slack-jawed through town. That’s because Las Vegas keeps changing its appearance like a backstage troubadour. To keep ’em coming, the place is continually remodeling, imploding, rebuilding and revising. That ensures the city you saw last time won’t be the place you see next time. Las Vegas is the fourth-fastest growing city in America and attracts 35 million visitors a year.
You can see the $2 billion Wynn Las Vegas resort rising from the dust of the old Desert Inn. It is the second-largest construction project in the world, due to open next year. Part of the project is building a mountain. In Las Vegas, mountain-building is no big deal. Up and down the strip, cranes and men in hard hats are working: The Aladdin hotel is morphing into the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino. The monorail is being extended.
Some Vegas advice
Here’s some free advice on Vegas, which can quickly separate you from your money.
Walking around is free. Some shows are free. You can get half-priced show tickets at a booth on the strip. Many resorts shower freebies on guests who gamble. And inexpensive weekend packages abound.
For good meals, skip the buffets and spend some money on decent food. Two buffets I tried were wretched. If you eat your big meal of the day at lunch, you can eat in a nice place for less.
If you’re getting married in Vegas, the inexpensive places are nearly as nice as the most expensive. Last year, 120,000 marriage licenses were issued in Las Vegas.
Weddings at the Flamingo resort cost $600 to $1,400, depending on the package. The pastel chapel is pleasant. In truth, it looks not much different from the small wedding chapel at Bellagio. The difference? At the glamorous Bellagio, weddings cost $1,200 to $16,000.
Look for hotel deals, but choose carefully. And beware of some rough areas of town off the Strip. I had planned to spend half my trip in a budget motel but changed plans when the smoky, rundown place was too far from anywhere and required guests to sign a release prohibiting drug activity, prostitution and stealing the TV remote.
Be prepared for a more risqué Vegas. To attract a younger, hipper crowd, the city is getting naughtier all the time. New adult night spots aim for the 20-40 crowd with lounges named Risque, Tabu, Ghostbar, Skin, Rain, V Bar and the Ice House. New strip clubs and lap-dancing are booming. The long-running “Bottoms Up” afternoon burlesque-style revue at the Flamingo is topless, and it looks quaintly tame compared to many clubs and shows.
For the art-inclined, Las Vegas is trying very hard to be classy, so look beyond the kitsch to find some masterpieces.
Rich Vegas moguls have sprinkled their resorts with high-end art museums. That means you can see a giant Elvis statue and a Picasso on the same day. For high-end, try the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum at the Venetian or the Gallery of Fine Art at the Bellagio.
The gambling world
Gambling in Las Vegas or gaming as they call it looks pretty much like it does in any casino, only there are a whole lot more people doing it. Sure, I saw the clinking quarters pouring out of a slot machine or two, but not many shouts of joy were coming from those poker and baccarat tables.
Taxi driver Skander Llulla says he always asks tourists leaving Las Vegas if they won. Almost everyone says no.
“This place is built to collect money, not to give it,” says Llulla, an Albanian native who has lived in Las Vegas since 1994. “If someone asks how they can get lucky, I tell them, ‘Keep your money in your pocket.’ “
Out on the Strip, you’ll find a throng of tourists as dumbfounded as you are. There are high-heeled women in designer clothes, dumpy couples wearing wrinkled shorts and sneakers (oh, wait a minute, wasn’t that me?), guys with tattoos, others with smooth leather loafers.
I saw burqas. I saw rusty pickups and a red Mercedes and about a million limousines. I heard at least 10 languages. I saw a haughty poker dealer with hands so fast you never saw where the cards came from. I saw a man winning at blackjack and a pit boss staring at him very, very hard.
Nobody is that lucky and that honest at the same time, are they?
Maybe they are. Anything is possible in this town.