So what else is there left to say about Las Vegas? Whatever you’ve seen in movies, whatever you’ve heard, whatever you’ve read – it’s all of that and then some. An ever-evolving stereotype of excess. A snapshot of the American attitude to life – bigger, brighter, faster, and more than you could ever need or want.
And how do you know you have arrived in Las Vegas? Because when you get off the plane, the first thing you encounter isn’t an arrival counter or any sort of security – it’s about 50 slot machines with a nicely dressed attendant waiting to give you change or a drink.
We arrived just on dusk after 18 hours in transit, 10 of those crammed into the middle seats of a packed 747 between Fiji and LAX. My dreams of dumping our bags and dashing out into the bright lights of The Strip to have my soul set on fire quickly dissolved when we spied the king size bed in our studio apartment. Somehow it was more comfortable then it looked, and the executive decision was made to give our bodies the rest it craved. We had 5 days after all.
Sometime later we were woken by the phone – it was our travel companions Lenka and Craig. They had got in just after midnight and were staying a few floors up from us. Disoriented and with the block-out blinds doing their job, we were completely unaware that it was 11am and we had been out cold for over 12 hours. We were rested now, so there was to be no wasted time from here on in. And what better way to start then with a frozen margarita on the pool deck.
Our hotel, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, was nothing short of amazing. The newest 5 star hotel / casino in Las Vegas, with a clear target demographic of 18 to 35 year olds. It was classy and chic right down to the finest detail. We picked it as it is one of the few hotels / resorts on The Strip that offer a balcony or terrace. Planning laws in the county had changed in the last decade, now allowing them with certain conditions. The bonus was the spectacular views over the Bellagio Fountains (refer photo 3 and 4 above).
Around 3pm on our first official day we were picked up by a limousine and shuttled out to the airfields adjacent to the airport. The four of us had booked the Sunset Grand Canyon Helicopter tour. It was a glorious afternoon with light winds and very little cloud. We went over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead before continuing out to the Canyon. We set down inside the Canyon, interestingly in the section still owned and controlled by the native Americans. Apparently no helicopters are allowed into the National Park owned by the US government.
We spent half an hour snapping photos and taking in the surrounds, before we found our pilot Chris setting out a picnic table on the hill. We were served sandwiches, fruit and champagne while he answered our questions about how he landed the best job in the world. The four of us shared the helicopter ride out with a couple from New Zealand. I apologized to them for coming halfway round the world to get stuck with four Australians. They quickly fired back that this was so spectacular that they wouldn’t care who they had to sit next to. Maybe not John Denver though.
The two highlights were still to come. As we ascended up over the rim we were blasted by the setting sun off in the distance. The rocks of the rim must have only been 200 metres below the helicopter, then all of a sudden the ground was gone. The shear face of the rim dropped off about 500 metres. It was like being on a rollercoaster and shooting off the rails. Our return journey was perfectly soundtracked by every song in the history of rock to have the word ‘fly’ in it. And most importantly ‘Highway to the Danger Zone’ from the Top Gun soundtrack.
As the sun disappeared behind the mountains Las Vegas had become visible again. Chris began his descent and we swept over the old town section, and with a sharp left turn went from top to bottom of the entire Las Vegas strip. We were lower than the Stratosphere and felt like we could have jumped out onto the roof of the Trump Tower. It was jaw-dropping stuff. We swung around the MGM Grand and back to airfield. I don’t think anyone wanted it to end.
We celebrated the day with a feast at The Cosmopolitan’s new-age steakhouse / nightclub STK. In Las Vegas your body-clock gives up – you eat when you are hungry, you sleep when you can. Plus the casino’s don’t want you to know what time it is, so it’s easier to just go with it. This results in more dinners after midnight, than before.
On the Saturday it was time to tick off a few more Las Vegas staples. We went to Zumanity, the new adults-only Cirque De Soleil show then hit the tables in the New York New York. With so much going on, I’d managed to last 48 hours in Nevada without gambling. Craps and Blackjack are the only two games that you have any chance against the house, so the former was all I had eyes for. The Strip is no place for a mug punter, as the bulk of Blackjack tables have a minimum $25 bet per hand. With a hand roughly every 90 seconds our holiday could have been over before it even started.
As the numbers dwindle a couple of tables start to drop back to $10 hands. I sidle one with a guy from Ireland and fisherman from Minnesota. Rather than exchange names everyone reverts to calling by where you are from. We are soon joined by a young guy who doesn’t look old enough to count to 21. He throws down his passport and sure enough it has a kangaroo and an emu on it. He becomes Melbourne, seeing I’ve already taken Australia. The drinks flow and there are plenty of laughs. I double my outlay, but then give most of it back. Weary I look down at my watch, which is still on Fiji time. I step out into blazing Sunday morning sunshine. It’s 8am and I’m not sure where the last 7 hours have gone. But thankfully I still have my shirt and money for breakfast.
As I wander up the relatively empty Las Vegas Boulevard, it strikes me how under-policed the Strip is. In the last 12 hours I can’t remember the last security guard or police officer I saw. Granted this is the CCTV capital of the world, but in Australia you need a couple of security guards to keep an eye on Wednesday schnitzel night at the local bowlo. Yet somehow a couple of hundred thousand people have poured in on the Easter weekend, got ridiculously drunk and we haven’t once felt unsafe or seen a fight. Sydney Police would be happy with no deaths on the equivalent night. It is a stark reminder that there is something seriously wrong back home.
On Sunday night we take a ride to the original Las Vegas – Fremont Street. It’s like time has stood still over there. The casinos are old and tacky but have an unmistakably nostalgic charm. The area still pulls a crowd thanks to the Fremont Street Experience – a 400m long enclosed plaza that all the bars and casinos spill out onto. They run an amazing light and sound spectacular projected onto the roof every 20 minutes or so. It’s all bright and bustling like The Strip, but lacking the pretentiousness and traffic. The next two hours is non-stop cheesy fun, and we get to tick off another Vegas must-do by tipping our hat to Vegas Vic the Cowboy.
After our trip back in time we return to the Strip to sample The Venetian Hotel & Casino complete with replicated canals and cobblestone streets. After some more casino and club hopping, we wind up back at the Chandelier Bar in The Cosmopolitan. We get talking to a couple of young American guys, who seem excited to be talking to anyone but other Americans. The older of the two – we’ll call Mr. X – has an interesting occupation. He’s a resort / hotel host. If you are a VIP, celebrity or just someone with too much of Daddy’s money, you can pay him a fee, tell him what you would like to do and he fills in the rest. That ranges from private cars and security to side access for shows or private areas in ritzy restaurants and clubs. He resists providing any more detail, so we figure a few free drinks might loosen his tongue.
After another hour or two Mr. X starts to open up. But still refuses to name names. He can sense our scepticism, so decides to throw us a bone to prove he is legit. He proceeds to reel off a very high profile AFL player as one of his favourite clients and now good friends. He flashes the +61 mobile number to prove it and a happy snap of the pair in a club during the last AFL off-season. He says this client is easy because he can walk anonymously through Las Vegas and not draw any attention. His NFL and NBA clients on the other hand are not so easy. Full-time bodyguards, undercover security and a directive to smash any persons phone who takes a photo. Mr. X continues to regale us with tales of European and Middle Eastern royalty well into the morning (stuff that can’t be repeated here), until we realise it is 6am and it is time to part ways.
We rise a few hours later and deem the only way to fix a Vegas hangover is with a proper American hamburger… Curated by a bad-tempered pom. We shuffle across the road to Planet Hollywood to sample Gordon Ramsay’s casual diner BurGR. Nothing too exotic or fancy, just good quality basic ingredients with a Chef’s touch. The sentence “best burger I’ve ever eaten” seems to echo around the table, and at $12USD – is cheaper than Grill’d or some takeaway joints back home. He might be a pompous twat with a bad attitude, but the bloke knows what he is doing with this one.
Our last night is spent ticking off all the other free must-do’s in the giant circus that is Las Vegas Boulevard – the highlight being a front-row farewell viewing of the Bellagio fountain show. We’ve watched this 30 times already from our balcony, but it is even better up close – especially as you can hear the music that the dancing fountains are choreographed to.
At this time we also reflect on how good it has been to do Vegas as a group. Lenka and Craig have been wonderful partners in crime in what was a fabulous 5 days of eating, drinking and being merry – times we will never forget.
So did the bright light city set my soul on fire like Elvis said it would? Of course. And a little bit of that will stay burning until we go back.