Paris? Left past the pyramids

If you want to you hit `Le Jacques Pot' then you'll have to hit Paris, Las Vegas, the ultimate theme-hotel-casino-resort
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Indy Lifestyle Online
YOU DON'T forget your first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. I caught sight of it peeping out from behind the Great Pyramid of Luxor, off beyond the Empire State Building and framed against the skyline of Venice beyond. No, not a mirage in the 95-degree midnight heat, or a cocktail-induced hallucination. Just Las Vegas, 1999, entering its strange and distinctive latest phase - globalisation.

"Paris" is the latest in the late-Nineties generation of giant theme- hotel-casino-resorts. It's got 3,000 bedrooms in a block that's a Nevada notion of the essence of Paris, part Eiffel Tower, part Chateau, part neon hot-air balloon. For a closer inspection, take a drive down the main drag, The Strip. In the books and films this is a down-at-heel boulevard of buzzing neon where gonzo journalists can casually abandon their Cadillacs for the duration of a three-tab acid trip without even risking a parking ticket. Nowadays the reality is an eight-lane dual carriageway still snarled with tourist traffic at 2am.

Slowly the Eiffel Tower gets closer, and the traffic jam provides an ideal vantage point for viewing Welcome To Paris! - the Promotional Video! beaming from the high-definition TV hovering like a cuboid spaceship above the street. The film is meant to be the story of how "Paris" got here - it shows teams of Vegas removal men stealing the trappings of a mythical France from under the noses of those drippy Parisians. And finally they pinch the Eiffel Tower itself. The idea is that everything you could possibly want from France is here, but it's even better because now it's less French.

Swing the car into the "Parcage" (first mistake guys - everyone knows that the French word for "Parking" is "Parking") and head for reception where a man in a foreign legion hat beams "Bahn Jewah Misseur". It takes a moment for the brain to decipher that he's speaking French. Don't get clever and try a "comment ca va".

The Eiffel Tower itself turns out to be half-scale, and so has a slightly disappointing whiff of Blackpool about it. The casino hall is ranged around one leg of the tower, which disappears up into the ceiling. All around are twee replicas of Parisian streets; accordion music competes with the ping and tinkle of the fruit machines and the bilingual theme continues everywhere. A big sign promises "Le Jacques Pot".

At the opening in September, they hired every famous French person they could think of (Charles Aznavour and Catherine Deneuve). Since then business has been brisk. The most entertaining spectacle of all in Paris, Vegas comprises the real French tourists, puce with indignation at this cheery, cheesy desecration of their heritage and having a spluttering sense-of- humour failure at the whole affair.

If you start to tire of Paris, why not take in the rest of the world? Just along the street is "The Venetian", with its roulette wheels and blackjack tables housed in a replica of the Doge's Palace, complete with Bridge of Sighs and singing gondoliers who ply the canals between the gaming halls. Or wander up to "New York, New York", you can't miss it, that's the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge outside. Here, a Manhattan cab journey becomes a realistically gut compressing roller-coaster ride round the 529-foot high hotel complex, itself modelled on a cluster of New York's best known skyscrapers, and built on a one-third scale. All it needs is a driver swearing at you in Farsi to make the experience perfect.

You can laugh heartily at New Las Vegas, but you can no longer write it off as simply tacky kitsch. The sheer scale and lavish opulence of the new casinos means that the hotel rooms are likely to be well-equipped, the food in the posh restaurants really tasty. This town has moved on from the days when the Flamingo and the Sands catered for soldiers on R&R and the great gangster-hoteliers like Bugsy Siegel found that the price for aggravating the shareholders was a fatal hail of bullets through the window. Since then the casinos have kept on pulling in the cash, and the town has kept on morphing at a dramatic pace. In the eighties, the new giant hotels offered a Big Theme - "Excalibur" (hotel shaped like a castle, everyone dressed as knights) or "Luxor" (ancient Egypt, hotel in a glass pyramid). Simple.

But in the last five years the next phase has been completed. Its logic is why stop at a theme when you can have a whole city, or a whole country, with all its cultural experiences on offer? That way, all the punters can be kept happy, whether you want hot-dogs and beer, haute cuisine, a weekend high-rolling or just somewhere to park the kids.

And the more people who can be kept happy, the more Las Vegas can do what it's so good at - sucking money from pockets and across the tables and into the slots.

The swankiest of all the new hotels along the strip is the Bellagio, themed, bizarrely, on a northern Italian village. The names in neon lights outside this one: "Now appearing - Van Gogh, Monet and Cezanne - with special guests, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse".

The owner is the doyen of the New Vegas hoteliers, Steve Wynn, and his gimmick here is a small but definitely heavyweight art collection to woo the punters with a touch of class. Wynn spent pounds 200 million on the collection, which gives a good indication of just how nicely the casinos are doing in America's present economic boom. Outside on the replica Lake Como, a row of nozzles rise up from the water's surface every 15 minutes like synchronised periscopes, and a spectacular "water-ballet" is performed, all in time to Strauss and Shirley Bassey.

It seems a bit familiar. Of course - it was Liberace, that patron saint of Las Vegas, who used to play along to this same old gimmick, "The Dancing Waters", in his stage show. If Mr Showmanship could see Las Vegas now we'd be guaranteed that sniggering, snuggling catchphrase: "Too much of a good thing - is WONDERFUL"'. He's right. It is.

Arriving in Las Vegas: for the first time from next summer, Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747) will operate scheduled non-stop flights from London to Las Vegas. Departures are from Gatwick on Thursdays and Sundays from 8 June. Through discount agents such as Quest Worldwide (0181-546 6000), you can get a fare of only pounds 273 return for travel in June. It can be combined with Virgin flights to Los Angeles or San Francisco. Alternatively, any of the big US airlines will sell you a ticket to Vegas through their hubs.

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