48 Hours In: Las Vegas
High-rolling Simon Calder stacks the odds in your favour with this neon-lit attempt to beat the midwinter gloom in the heat of the Nevada desert
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Friday 14 December 2012
Why go now?
Las Vegas is one of the sunniest places on the planet, which makes it the perfect antidote to midwinter gloom in Britain. The party will be at its most intense over Christmas – or you could resolve to indulge yourself in the new year.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) compete with non-stop 747 flights: BA from Heathrow and Gatwick, Virgin from Gatwick and Manchester. You touch down at the shiny new Terminal 3 of McCarran airport (1). The Nevada Taxi Authority says a taxi to the closest hotels, such as the MGM Grand (2), should cost around $16 (£10), while the downtown area is likely to be around $29 (£18). Bus 108 from Terminal 1 runs downtown in about half an hour for $2 (£1.30).
Get your bearings
Las Vegas does not resemble any traditional city. What would pass for the centre is where Las Vegas Boulevard meets Fremont Street – marked by one of the iconic neon signs, the Hacienda Horse and Rider (3). Las Vegas Boulevard – better known as the Strip – runs south from here, flanked by hotels, casinos and malls on its seven-mile run towards the airport. For more information, see visitlasvegas.com
With Paris located just opposite New York and Mandalay Bay along the road from Luxor, the geography of Las Vegas can get confusing. Maverick (0800 098 8515; maverickhelicopter.co.uk) offers an instant geography lesson on the 15-minute, $119 (£74) aerial tour from McCarran airport (1).
El Cortez (4) at 600 Fremont Street (001 702 385 5200; elcortezhotelcasino.com) is the great survivor – a downtown landmark since 1941. The management has refreshed a tired old motel across the street into El Cortez Cabana Suites, which bring boutique chic to downtown: double rooms are still available next week for $45 (£28), room only.
You might prefer to check in on the Strip to North America’s biggest single hotel, the mammoth MGM Grand (2) (001 702 891 7777; mgmgrand.com) – where you could stay in a different room or suite every night for nearly 14 years. If you plan a shorter stay, the City View Suites are available for as little as $204 (£127).
Take a view
To see how this city is carved out of the middle of the Mojave Desert, take the lift 108 floors up to the top of the Stratosphere Tower (5) (001 702 380 7777; stratospherehotel.com; $18/£11). For an express alternative to the 37-second lift down to ground level, try the SkyJump (skyjumplasvegas.com). All you need do is don an attractive jumpsuit, step off of a platform 855ft above ground into thin air and let gravity – plus a steel rope – do the rest. All for a $110 (£69) fee.
Take a hike
To shed some light on the city’s neon history, walk through the pedestrianised Fremont Street Experience – location for Las Vegas’s first neon sign, installed in 1929. Start by the Golden Gate (6), and walk east – taking a couple of diversions. Dip into Binion’s Casino to see the stack of banknotes totalling $1m. The 1961 sign for the Flame restaurant has been rescued and stands beside a parking lot on Third Street. Back on Fremont Street, the Anderson Dairy mascot, Andy Anderson, marches along close to the Heart Attack Grill – where a “quadruple bypass burger” is served free to anyone weighing more than 350lb. (Scales are located outside.)
Acquire some altitude by taking the parking lot lift and walking on to the pedestrian bridge. The neon continues beyond the covered mall: besides the Horse and Rider (3), look out for Oscar’s martini and a scarlet slipper.
Six weeks ago, a reason to extend the walk was born: the Neon Museum (7) Visitors’ Center at 770 Las Vegas Boulevard North (001 702 387 6366; neonmuseum.org; 9.30am-5.30pm daily except Sunday, $15/£9) opens up a vast collection that peels back the decades.
Lunch on the run
Le Thai (8) at 523 Fremont Street (001 702 778 0888; lethaivegas.com) serves a swift, tasty lunch daily except Sunday: the beef and vegetable stir fry, along with a lemonade, comes to under $10/£6.
The Mob Museum (9), aka the National Museum of Organised Crime and Law Enforcement, is the new arrival at the former federal courthouse at 300 East Stewart Avenue (001 702 229 2734; themobmuseum.org; 10am-7pm daily, to 8pm Fri/Sat, $20/£13). Organised crime helped to build Las Vegas; the wall against which seven mobsters were shot in Chicago’s 1929 St Valentine’s Day massacre provides a bloody reminder of the Mob’s brutal history.
Take a glass elevator to the 64th floor of THEhotel at Mandalay Bay (10), where the Mix Lounge offers the best possible after-dark view indulgence. During the 5-8pm happy hour, a beer costs only $5 (£3).
Dining with the locals
Also at THEhotel (10), you can feast on a happy-hour menu in the Upstairs Lounge at RM Seafood – created by the chef and campaigner for sustainable seafood, Rick Moonen. From 5-10pm daily except Sunday and Monday, you pay only $10 (£6) for an Oyster Sampler.
Sunday morning: go to church
You’ve struck lucky with a holiday romance and decided to tie the knot? All you need to obtain a Las Vegas marriage licence is your passport or driving licence and $60 (£38). Then shop around for the best wedding venue – such as the clapboard Special Memory Wedding Chapel (11) at the corner of South 4th Street and Lovers’ Lane (001 702 384 2211; aspecialmemory.com).
Walk in the park
Las Vegas is in the middle of raw, magnificent desert. To experience it without leaving the city limits, visit the Springs Preserve (12) at 333 South Valley View Boulevard (001 702 822 7700; springspreserve.org; 10am-4pm daily, $19/£12). Just three miles west of downtown (and accessible on bus 206), you can explore several miles of trails.
Out to brunch
The eat-what-you-like buffet is an essential part of the Las Vegas dining experience, but for a cut above the average visit the Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan (13) (001 702 698 7000; cosmopolitanlasvegas.com). The chef de cuisine, Gerald Chin, says “We like to serve tapas-style dishes”, which means you can sample everything from sushi to steak without being overwhelmed. Brunch is served 8am-3pm at weekends ($32/£20), 8am-2pm ($23/£14) on other days.
For ultra-high-end shopping, visit The Crystals (14) – whose dramatic exterior was designed by Daniel Libeskind and the interior by David Rockwell, so it feels more like a gallery than a mall. Open 10am-11pm (to midnight Fri/Sat).
Take a ride
The resort hotel with its very own roller coaster cruised into Vegas in 1997 in the shape of New York New York (15). It costs $14 (£9) to see what the Vegas skyline looks like upside-down; 11am-11pm daily.
Icing on the cake
A free sound-and-light show, Viva Vision, infuses the Fremont Street Experience on the hour, every hour, 6pm-midnight. Then, take the Flightlinez zipwire, which reopened this week. The final thrill in the gravity-defying city costs $20 (£12).
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