music-lovers are elbowing out the Liberace lookalikes and shell-suited matrons.
Richard Gilbert continues our series on America. On page 58, literary Key West
Forget the tarot stalls, crystal vendors and wind chimes of San Francisco: ironically, it's in Las Vegas, traditionally known as Sin City or Lost Wage$, that a New Age has begun. Once there were only 24-hour gambling joints, topless bars called Boobs-R-Us, tacky wedding chapels and tired showbiz stars squeezing the last few dollars from their fading careers. Now there are family hotels, theme parks with an educational or environmental theme, the politically correct Cirque du Soleil circus, Michael Crawford musicals and venues designed to appeal to smart young professionals with an unexpected sense of, well, style.
The higher evolution of Las Vegas began in 1993, with the launch of three mega-resorts offering an alternative to gambling. The Luxor, which is the boldest and brashest, has a 360ft black glass pyramid with a faux- Egyptian theme; inside you can sail in a barge around a mock river Nile, while two giant talking camels greet visitors in the lobby. Treasure Island (a mock 18th-century pirate village on the edge of an artificial Buccaneer Bay) is another themed hotel which appeals to families rather than to gamblers. The MGM Grand - whose 5,005 rooms make it the largest in the world - has its own sports stadium and is surrounded by a 33-acre theme park where the star attraction is not Sammy Davis Junior, but the 90ft tall lion who stands guard over the Yellow Brick Road.
What is going on in Glitter Gulch? Nevada, which until 10 years ago enjoyed a monopoly on gambling, had to come up with new attractions when the activity was legalised in 22 other states. Hence Las Vegas's turreted Excalibur hotel - an Arthurian confection with touches of King Ludwig; Caesar's Palace with its Forum arcade of shops from Versace to Gucci, talking Roman statues and an artificial sky where the sun sets every 10 minutes; and the Mirage - a Polynesian paradise with white tigers prowling behind glass and a 40ft flaming volcano that erupts every quarter of an hour at night time.
How can any new hotel beat that? In recent months, entrepreneurs have been focusing hard on the problem. Las Vegas seems to have its own unique law of economics. Here, demand follows supply - the more rooms that are added, the more visitors come. So the Strip will soon see Lake Como brought to the desert with the billion-dollar Bellagio resort, while the New York, New York hotel will recreate the Manhattan skyline. Replicas of Paris and Monte Carlo are also being built, these four alone adding 11,000 rooms to the city's capacity.
The most surprising development of all, however, is the opening of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino a few blocks away from the Strip. In under a year it has established itself as the Vegas destination for style-sensitive 20- to 40-year-olds. Until now they would have thought of Vegas as the capital of shlock, possibly quoting Hunter Thompson's damning description of the city: "Las Vegas is what the whole hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war."
I checked out of the 3,000-room Treasure Island with its skull-shaped door handles and rows of pirate-themed stores and restaurants (Damsels in Dis'Dress, Black Spot Grille). As I ate breakfast, the casino was still busy with shell-suited matrons waving plastic buckets of quarters at the slot machines while baccarat players tried to recover the night's losses.
During the drive to the Hard Rock, I saw how cleverly Vegas has repositioned itself in the face of competition. Along the Strip the billboards were advertising traditional mainstream entertainment - Tom Jones, the Moody Blues, Debbie Reynolds and the Liberace Museum. Ten minutes later I was in Paradise, 4455 Paradise Road to be precise, where beneath a 90ft-long neon-lit Fender Stratocaster, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino was jumping. Steppenwolf thudded from the sound system as I strolled past Elton John's rhinestone piano, Bowie and Pink Floyd platinum records and a Smashing Pumpkins signed guitar. A Stevie Ray Vaughan lyric is engraved over the check-in desk: "When the house is rocking/Don't bother knocking/Come on in."
As I stopped to examine some of the 800 slot machines, bells suddenly rang, lights flashed and a 30-year-old Californian called Marcia scooped up 100 silver dollars. Arranging them neatly in piles, she said "That's it. I'll be back tonight for another tussle." This was no traditional Las Vegas gambler playing a standard three-cherries machine. Marcia is a law professor at Loyola University. Her winnings had spewed out of a Sid Vicious Anarchy in Vegas slot machine with a guitar neck for a handle and Marcia had lined up three God Save the Queens.
Next to her, a San Diego computing student was pulling the guitar handle on a Jimi Hendrix Voodoo slot machine. He showed me the gambling chips he had won at blackjack - the Red Hot Chili Peppers were engraved on the $5, Jimi Hendrix on the $25 and Tom Petty on the $100. These chips are so popular that guests often keep them as souvenirs instead of cashing them in.
Until now, I'd thought the only connection between hotels and rock'n' roll was that rock megastars, instead of watching TV, preferred to hurl the sets out of their 12th-floor rooms into the pool. But entrepreneur Peter Morton, who began the Hard Rock chain in London in 1971, has taken a $100m gamble with the world's first rock hotel and casino that could change the profile of Las Vegas still further. His hunches have a good track record: there are 36 Hard Rock Cafes around the world, from Beijing to Bali, Nashville to Reykjavik. By Vegas standards the Hard Rock, with only 340 rooms, is small. But it is turning away so many bookings that it will double in size next year.
The Center Bar, the social hub of the hotel, is in the heart of the circular casino. There Judy, a young banker from Chicago, shouted above the sound of Guns' n' Roses to explain the impact of the Hard Rock: "It's all to do with demographics and economics. The babyboomers are rising 50 and there are plenty of people in their twenties and thirties with high incomes who grew up with rock'n' roll. Until now there has been nothing for them in Vegas. This hotel is packed with people who probably thought of Vegas as the place their grandparents went for the weekend. Now they know it's cool to be in Vegas even when it's 115 degrees outside."
Judy was getting into her stride while playing a mean game of video poker on one of the many screens which covered the bar. She waved her arms at the young casino crowd: "They've uncovered a niche market for people like me. I feel comfortable here on my own; they're my kind of people, they're educated and they play my kind of music. There's Pearl Jam on the sound system, a fresh vodka cocktail in front of me and I've just won $90 in 20 minutes at video poker. It's hard to beat that. All this is a symbol of the transition of wealth in America."
By now I was feeling like a bit of transition of wealth myself, preferably from the casino in the general direction of my pocket. Beyond more rock memorabilia (The Doors' drum kit, an early Clapton guitar, Buddy Holly's cowboy boots), I found the Rain Forest Slots. This was a name I found puzzling but everything soon came clear. The Hard Rock is so environmentally correct that even the bar bills say "Save the Planet". The guest rooms have low-flush toilets and recycling bins, and leftover food from the kitchens is given to the Nevada needy. This also seems to be the only hotel in Las Vegas where you can open the windows in your room and breathe in the dry desert air while gazing at the Sierra Nevada and the distant sagebrush.
All Vegas casinos have a flickering electronic sign above the slots with figures marking the size of available jackpots. But the Hard Rock also has an electronic board that progressively counts down the number of rainforest acres left on the globe. As I inserted my first silver dollar in the slot, the figure was 1,580,732,572. Within five minutes I was $20 down but the world had apparently lost 500 acres of trees. As the profits from these particular slot machines go to conservation organisations, not to Peter Morton, it didn't hurt as much as it might have.
Rock permeates the hotel. Bedrooms are dominated by huge photographs of rock stars, and a 27in TV with 30 channels and four in-house rock networks. The swimming pool with its imported sandy beach has underwater loudspeakers so you never miss a note. If you don't want to be disturbed, you can hang a sign on your door which says: "I Hear Ya Knockin' But Ya Can't Come In". There are roulette tables shaped like pianos, chandeliers made of gold-plated saxophones, and Harley-Davidsons perched on top of slot machines. The corridor walls are lined with gold discs and in the lifts you hear the Stones and Springsteen instead of muzak. The sign above the cashiers reads "In Rock We Trust".
The $2m memorabilia collection is a free diversion from the gambling. You can gaze at Al Green's piano, John Lee Hooker's original acoustic guitar, Madonna's conical costume, Motley Crue's biker jackets and even part of the plane in which Otis Redding died in 1967. The Nirvana display has become a shrine; I saw one couple from Michigan writing a note to the late Kurt Cobain which they posted through a gap in the glass case. The Nirvana relics were covered with letters, dollar bills and even business cards. Steve Cavallaro, the Hard Rock's manager, assured me the money was removed every week and donated to the Samaritans.
Back at the Center Bar, Mike Paskevich, who covers entertainment for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, declared the Hard Rock yet another milestone for Las Vegas. "One day it may be seen as a turning point, comparable to Bugsy Siegel opening the Flamingo in 1946 because he believed this rough old frontier town needed a 'carpet joint'. That started the whole idea of resort hotels here. Today this place marks the changing of the guard in Vegas entertainment to tap into a younger, hipper market. It's a symptom of Las Vegas moving towards Los Angeles, what I call 'the malling of America'. There's something bizarre about seeing Jimi Hendrix's face on a $25 chip and "Anarchy in Vegas" slot machines. It makes no sense. But that's half the fun of Vegas - it makes no sense at all."
The themes and marketing of Las Vegas are changing rapidly but one factor remains constant. It's a town whose success is still based on bad mathematics. Ninety-eight per cent of all visitors lose money in the casinos, but they don't seem to complain because they have had a travel bargain, cheap rooms and food and they have stuffed their money into 125,000 slot machines, one of which might one day pay out $10 million. So people go home full of cheap buffet food and with thinner wallets but swear they've had a great time. What they leave behind adds up to a large enough cash mountain to finance the billion-dollar hotels that are springing up.
The Hard Rock doesn't have many high rollers: it's more like a party than a casino. Visitors enjoy themselves without spending five hours a day at the slots and tables (the average figure in Vegas). It proves that it's easier to survive Las Vegas if you realise that gambling is no longer the only game in town. !
GETTING THERE: American Holidays (0181 577 9966) offers flights to Las Vegas from pounds 345 return, and inclusive holidays from pounds 450. Funway (0181 466 0222) has packages to Las Vegas all the year round, from three to seven nights' duration, with accommodation at all the large hotels on the Strip.
STAYING THERE: The Hard Rock Hotel (00 1 702 693 5000) is at 4455 Paradise Road, Las Vegas, Nevada 89109. Rooms start at $65 midweek, $135 Friday and Saturday (in most Las Vegas hotels, starting prices depend on day of arrival).
Many of the city's most lavish and over-the-top hotels can be found on Las Vegas Boulevard. At number 3900 is the Luxor (00 1 702 262 4000), where prices start at $59 midweek, $99 weekends. At Treasure Island (00 1 702 894 7111), 3300 Las Vegas Boulevard, prices range from $69 to $269. At the MGM Grand (00 1 702 891 1111), situated at number 3799, they fluctuate from $69 to $279. Rooms at Caesar's Palace (00 1 702 731 7110), 3570 Las Vegas Boulevard, are available from $119 to pounds 299 but they can cost over $1,000.
Opening in December 1996 is the New York-New York hotel (00 1 702 740 6969) at 3790 Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, Nevada 89109. Room prices there will start at $89 Sunday to Thursday, $129 Friday and Saturday.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Contact the Las Vegas Visitors Authority (01564 794999), Cellet Travel Services, 121 High Street, Henleyin-Arden, Solihull, West Midlands B95 5AU.