Bright lights: Ruby Wax hits Vegas

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The last time she visited Las Vegas, Ruby Wax got married (it was a work-permitty thing). Now she's back to cast an astonished eye over the most surreal city in the world

A little history. The very first gamblers in Las Vegas were the Paiute Indians, who were knocked off by the Mormons who came to convert them. Eventually they were bumped off by Bugsy Siegel, who skimmed money from the casinos, so he was gunned down. Meyer Lansky, head of the crime racket, came in and disposed of the rest of everybody who wasn't in the Mafia or the Rat Pack until he and his pals were nailed by Howard Hughes. Siegfried and Roy came along and dispensed with Howard. Later Roy or Siegfried was mauled by a white tiger. Wayne Newton got rid of whoever the tiger didn't get, and was then axed by Cher. Who will knock off Cher? We do not know.

The last time I came to Vegas was to get married, not so much romantically but more in a work-permitty kind of way, as there was no other means to strut my stuff on stage in England. I'd got a job at the RSC. They asked me how I could work there being an American? And I said I was married.

So I needed a husband, and I needed one bad. A friend found me a willing partner; off we drove to Vegas, the wind in my hair, to tie the knot. We wanted to find the worst possible place to say, "I do". There were many choices. We rang the bell of the Chapel of Love and found a snoring woman collapsed on the sofa with a cat on her head, so we moved on to the next one. Silver Bells was part-wedding chapel, part-funeral parlour: it depended on whether you were walking in or lying down. Elvis married us and told me to love and cherish whatever his name was.

Jump-cut to 2008, and I'm back. My plane landed in the middle of this barren desert. In the near distance, like a lunatic oasis, was an insane gaggle of hotels: a replica of the Eiffel Tower crammed up to the Statue of Liberty, next door to the Pyramids, neighbour to the canals of Venice. A stretch limo came to take me 20 feet to my hotel. In fact, I just walked from the back of the car to the front and then I found myself in the Wynn.

The Wynn is the most chic of all the hotels in Vegas, a jutting 60-storey wall of gold containing 2,000 rooms and suites. Gigantic doors are whooshed open by smiling teeth in a uniform (who you have to tip or you're dead meat). On entering, you're blasted by a typhoon of air conditioning as you walk on a bridge through a tropical jungle over the world's biggest goldfish; everything and everyone in Vegas is a hundred times bigger than normal. This is the foyer to the foyer. The next foyer makes the Sistine Chapel look underdone. On the ceiling is God with all the angels in heaven smiling over the concierge desk. The centre of the reception is Kew Gardens in a vase surrounded by chunks of solid gold.

More doors whoosh and you're assaulted by the sound of "ding ding" at fighter-plane volume. This is the gaming room filled with hundreds – maybe thousands – of slot machines called Devil's Luck, Sunken Treasure and Millionaire's Bandit.

Perched on a stool in front of these change machines that only take change, sit the tired, the poor and the huddled masses, all smoking for all they're worth. You cannot play unless you smoke... a lot. Everyone smokes but special machines whisk the smoke up and out. When I first visited Vegas, there was some exercise involved in pulling the handle down. Now you just push a button and lose your pants. Above are hundreds of chandeliers, like crystal octopuses with hundreds of lamp-shaded tentacles.

Around the edge of the island of blackjack tables, roulette wheels and slots are about 30 exclusive restaurants run by the crème de la crème of chefs. I loved the Strata, where the cook was such a genius that he went around signing veal.

Each bar and nightclub has a different decor: one's a merry-go-round, another a forest of electric trees, another has a view of a 50ft blue, red and green waterfall, where every half an hour a giant frog ascends and lip-syncs to Nat King Cole's "If I Ruled the World". Don't ask me why.

Then there's a galleria, but instead of Starbucks and Gap, there's Gucci, Pucci, Armani – every haute couture shop you can imagine, with nothing that sells for less than $10,000. Who shops here? The high rollers. They shoot crap and other games in rooms filled with the hushed silence of the very rich. Bond girls are glued to their sides, like bejewelled hand-puppets. The girls are siliconed to the point of exploding; their breasts are like wild bulls trying to get out of a pen. They are coated in dresses cut to the navel, made of rhinestones with dollar-bill motifs.

But you can escape all this in your hotel room, which is tranquil and silent, with a beige-coloured cloud-bed facing a wall of plasma screens.

And yes, there is life after gambling: there's a pool that's longer than the Nile. Everyone who ventures outside has to stand in the water in order to survive the heat. So you walk around half-submerged with a drink in your hand: older people are eating, young couples are on honeymoon, tonguing. Most of the women are reined in by bikinis the size of a toenail: they cover nothing. If you snapped their G-strings you'd be able to catapult their kidneys right out of their mouths. Everyone here has a tattoo: the old, the young, the babies. On those who are particularly obese, you can get the full chronology of Merlin from birth to death and every deed he did in between. Scenes of dragons slaying gargoyles are mixed with Jesus bearing his cross. The young nubiles have tiny, discreet butterflies on their stomachs, but as they expand, those tattoos will turn into bald eagles.

When you want to foray away from the Wynn, you can go by walkway or pedestrian umbilical cord to The Palazzo, which is also lined with shops. These are filled with so much bling that you need a tow-truck to help you drag it around: designer handbags are made heavy by diamonds and the pelts of hapless wildlife. It's more expensive to buy a purse here than a human organ.

Exhausted by the walk, I went to a fantastic place called SushiSamba, which had a little specialty of rare fish, gold-leaf Ossetra caviar and foie gras in a rice roll for $120 each. The sushi was off the chart in exquisiteness and was followed by Kobe beef. This is made from an animal that is massaged for months and then, to its surprise (because it thinks it's in a spa), is slaughtered.

Another umbilical cord took me to The Venetian, where you can't tell you're not in the real Venice except for the fact your gondola floats past Costa Coffee, DKNY, Levi's and Macy's – it's all in a mall. Then you come to St Mark's Square, where men dressed as Casanova sell burgers and courtesans push popcorn.

The whole of Venice ends at an escalator which takes you directly to The Phantom of the Opera. This is a shortened version of the original production, as we Americans have very little attention spans and want to get back to eating and losing our life savings. The entire theatre is decked out in gothic horror mode and some of the members of the cast sail over your head so you become part of the story. I thought I was in the show and started to sing with the chorus until someone told me to shut up.

Every night we went to a show. At the Bellagio, home to a garden the size of Eden, was the greatest show I've ever witnessed: Cirque du Soleil's O. The audience faces a stage which is a swimming pool that rises and falls throughout the evening. At one point, it's an inch deep for a splashing parade of grotesques led by a deranged girl in red jumping in and out of her coffin; at another, it's followed by a man reading a newspaper nonchalantly while he's completely on fire. The pool then deepens and a grand piano emerges from the depths with a very wet man playing, as mermaids plummet from the ceiling and a pirate ship flies through the air, acrobats dangling from the sails. This is a Salvador Dalí painting come to life, and is Vegas at its best.

I also saw the worst show I've ever seen: Menopause the Musical. I was alone in a cheap, darkened bar room along with three chronically obese women, all eating hot dogs. The curtains parted and suddenly there was so much overacting on show that the faces of the four sweating actresses were having contractions, eyes popping from their sockets to please. The story took place in the women's toilet at Bloomingdale's and the tunes were from other shows but with original words, such as (sung to the tune of "Heat Wave"): "Outside it is nippy, but I'm hot and drippy/ I'm havin' a hot flash." I walked out after the first act.

You eventually get blasé and begin to walk past sharks in the lobby, an erupting volcano and lions in the rest room without even a glimpse. I needed a rest, so I took a helicopter to the Grand Canyon. Waiting in the heli-lounge, I found myself watching a screen (there is not a crevice in Vegas that doesn't have a screen, otherwise you'd have to look at other people and that would be too frightening). So, on the screen they were showing a couple getting married in a helicopter. And guess what? Elvis was flying the plane – the same guy who married me 20 years ago. This world is so small.

We flew out of Dante's Inferno and were soon over the magic desert. For millions of miles we saw nothing, until suddenly there was the Hoover Dam, which holds most of the water Vegas uses for spurting fountains, canals, pristine green golf courses, marathon-length pools and misty spray. After about an hour, we looked down to see a cluster of ticky-tacky houses all made just the same. The pilot told us it was a community for old folks and the nearest grocery store was 50 miles away. These people were begging to die.

Eventually, we flew into the Grand Canyon itself, all red, jagged shards of thousand-foot mountains on all sides, dropping to valleys nearly touching Hell. The canyon is one mile deep and 277 miles long. Imagine the first Europeans who found it: so there's García López de Cárdenas from Spain in 1540 trotting along on his horse. And suddenly he screams, "Whoa, boy!" A few hundred of his men go over like lemmings, unable to pull the reins fast enough. Luckily, some survived to be able to put up a "Mind the Gap" sign.

OK, back to real life. I went to Caesars Palace, which is probably the reason why Rome fell. It is ancient Rome, but modern. Shiny statues of Caesar, naked women, spitting horses and killer soldiers line this monolith of a hotel. The ceiling is painted like the sky and goes night and day in direct opposition to what the real earth is doing outside. It's a sort of "up yours" to Mother Nature.

Roman fountains come to life on the hour. Then, from out of the middle of the structure, accompanied by billows of smoke, a figure made of some kind of papier mâché rises up and talks like Ian McKellen: "My children, rise up – power has seduced mankind and destroyed our land, so, my daughter, arise, ye who rules the oceans, and my son, with eyes the colour of flames who is prince of all ye sees, and choose among ye who will be the ruler of Atlantis – arise." The daughter comes out and is very butch, holding a flaming sword and wearing a steel bikini: "Choose me, dear father, for I can punish, fight with fires with the wink of an eye." The McKellen figure then says, "You, the audience, must choose which one of my children will help cease this mad war and will mother my seed."

We don't get to choose as there is canned applause, the whole thing catches on fire and "Ian" and the kids go down in smoke. After the show, I saw a 20ft poster of Cher, who is coming soon to Caesars Palace. She was all soft and gleaming like a newborn, as if she'd just come out of the womb.

And so we come to Cher again, just like when Vegas began. Yes, she was there at the start and she'll be there in the end, like the cockroaches that were there after the Big Bang and will be there after the nuclear destruction of the world. They cannot be destroyed and nor can Cher. Long may she wave. If she still can. Viva Las Vegas!

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

The writer travelled with Virgin Holidays (0844 5573 860; virginholidays.co.uk), which offers short breaks in Las Vegas from £889, including flights on Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick, car hire and five nights at the Wynn Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is served by Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; virgin-atlantic.com) and BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi. com). To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; reducemyfootprint. travel).

Staying there

Wynn Las Vegas, 3131 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 702 770 7000; wynnlasvegas.com).

Visiting there

Secret Garden of Siegfried and Roy, The Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 702 791 7188; miragehabitat.com). Open daily 10am-5.30pm; $15 (£10).

O by Cirque du Soleil, The Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 702 693 7722; bellagio.com). Wed–Sun 7.30pm and 10.30pm; from $103 (£69).

Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 866 782 0655; harrahs.com).

Phantom – the Las Vegas Spectacular, The Venetian, 3355 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 702 414 9000; phantomlasvegas.com). Mon–Sat 7pm and 9.30pm; $69-$158 (£45-£105).

Maverick Helicopters (001 888 261 4414; maverickhelicopter.com). Grand Canyon tours start at $462 (£308).

KA by Cirque du Soleil, MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 877 880 0880; mgmgrand.com).

Eating & drinking there

Diablo's Cantina, Monte Carlo Resort and Casino, 3770 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 888 529 4828; montecarlo.com).

Sushisamba, The Palazzo, 3325 Las Vegas Boulevard South (001 702 607 0700; palazzolasvegas.com).

Ago, Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, 4455 Paradise Road (001 702 693 4440; hardrockhotel.com).

More information

visitlasvegas.co.uk; 020-7367 0979

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