Lovin' Las Vegas: A wild week in Sin City
A week in Sin City? Oliver Duff wasn't sure it was for him. But the gambling capital of America has many charms. And a riotous stay left him exhausted, exhilarated – and addicted
Saturday 04 August 2007
Roulette at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas: two men – an elderly Chinese man in slacks with splayed teeth, and a portly young American with thinning hair and a cheap sports shirt – go about their business at the table silently, quickly shuffling thousands of dollars about the betting grid, chip stacks forming peculiar patterns in desperate attempts to cover all outcomes and not be eaten by the House. They give every appearance of meticulous preparation – for a game of complete chance. I throw two $25 chips on black and hope.
The slick young croupier orders the two men to stop betting. Then he fires the ball around the circular groove and spins the roulette wheel in the opposite direction. Players and spectators watch the ball spiral slower, falling, popping up in the air and finally settling on... "Black!" I have doubled my stake. After 10 minutes, our modest combined bankroll of $400 (£197) has swelled to $700. The four of us – all British guys – jig elatedly away from the table before our luck turns.
We had flown from Sussex to Sin City six nights earlier. Las Vegas is regulated vice. There's obviously plenty of booze, drugs, and random sex to be had for those looking. Still drunk from the night before? Throw 40 bucks on the gun store counter and fire a machine gun out the back. Gorge yourself on gourmet all-you-can-eat banquets. Throw your savings on the table and await the turn of a card or roll of a die. Blow the mortgage money on hiring a helicopter to fulfil your Miami Vice and Apocalypse Now fantasies. Tick off the seven sins. Discover your limits.
We'd come for a week, and a week is a long time in Vegas. The city is insane, a carnival of escapism, posturing and pretence. The participants should probably be sectioned en masse – especially the snarling little old ladies in pastel-pink nylon tracksuits sitting at one-armed bandits at 6.30am, sipping Red Bull through a straw and dropping quarters into the slots. One night we were there, a 51-year-old man walked into New York New York and pulled a handgun from his trenchcoat, shooting four people. The incident barely registered in town.
Any more than three or four days self-medicating on alcohol, on big spending, on soft nudity, sunshine and oxygenated gaming rooms, on adrenalin and absolute excess, and your morals and behavioural norms slip. You want to stop indulging but enjoy it too much. You should cut the booze, even for a day, but freak out at the horrible reality that sobriety might expose. So you drink through the nausea, dry throat, headache, sweating and paranoia. Only a non-negotiable return plane ticket can safeguard you against irreversible decline: without that you'll stay 30 years and end up driving cabs. Yet against my expectations, and against this backdrop of madness, we had an absolute riot.
Picked up from the airport in a black stretch limousine, we checked in at the Rio, a popular mid-market, party-all-night joint, where the serious business of gambling is interrupted by the arrival of airborne carnival floats carrying scantily-clad dancers who throw sweets to the crowd. On the first night, groggy from the 11-hour flight from Gatwick, we went to the Voodoo Lounge on the 51st floor, where the patio offers stunning panoramas of the Strip as dusk turns to night. The breezes only brought more 40C heat in off the desert. The barman's contribution to the evening was a blue absinthe cocktail served in a goldfish bowl-sized glass. One of our group – a hairy man not genetically disposed to a career in modelling – took it upon himself to podium dance, topless, for the nightclub's patrons. A young American guy gave him $1. Another member of our party lost the ability to talk, followed soon after by his flip-flops and his balance. Fortunately, casino security were on hand to help him back to his room. We put it down to jetlag.
This set the tone: the following night we went to Hugh Heffner's Playboy tower at the Palms; the evening after, 4 July, we joined the Independence Day singalong at New York New York's duelling piano bar, where two pianists go head to head tinkling rabble-rousing tunes. One of our companions was so frazzled that he fell asleep in a strip club while a model gyrated before him. Each night we frittered away our cash at casino bars and poker before retreating to the Rio's late-night watering hole, an establishment affectionately known to residents as "the prossie bar", good for numbing gambling losses with a line of beers or a tropical alcoholic torpedo served in what looked like a maraca. I bought a big round of drinks after "beating the house": winning $12 on a video poker machine. Beds were usually reached somewhere between 3am and 6am.
Daytimes were spent bumming around.
Frying by the pool had to be cut back because temperatures reached the Vegas record of 117F (47C). Instead, we ogled the lions that prowl by the card tables at the MGM, and visited the Shark Reef aquarium at the Mandalay Bay. A volcano explodes outside the Mirage and white tigers stroll around inside the casino. (They used to perform in Siegfried and Roy's magic shows until one infamously tried to gobble Roy mid-performance in 2003; the attendants are tired of being asked to identify the culprit.) Outside Treasure Island, bikini-wearing pirates attack one another in a pyrotechnic naval display. Then there's the Bellagio's dancing fountains; the gondolas indoors at the Venetian; the revolving bar and trapeze artists at Circus Circus, immortalised by Hunter S Thompson; the Fifties mobster throwbacks at the Flamingo. And the chance encounters with celebrities: I was walking through the lobby of the Rio when a guy bumped past me and turned to apologise. It turned out to be the Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle, of Hotel Rwanda, Crash and Ocean's Eleven. The following night, in the lavatory at the swanky $2.7bn Wynn, a friend met the England footballer Rio Ferdinand. The next day, I ran into the six-times world snooker champion Steve Davis, who was in Vegas captaining Britain's Ladbrokes team at the World Series of Poker. He gave us a ride in his stretch Humvee over to the Las Vegas Desert Classic darts competition, where we drank lager with Phil "The Power" Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld. At the time, this all seemed pretty normal.
Davis somehow persuaded Ladbrokes to enter me into two "Texas Hold 'Em" poker tournaments. In the first, 250 players slugged it out for a $10,000 prize. When the traditional "Shuffle up and deal!" kick-started affairs, I sat on my shaking hands, struggling to remember the basics. I played cautiously and lasted an hour. In the second tournament, with 20 players competing for $2,500 (£1,250), I foolhardily bet all my chips on my first hand (two jacks) and got busted. On my walk of shame away from the table, I was a presented with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon – on the house – for my spectacular exit.
Come day six, our penultimate day in Vegas, we craved ever-greater adrenalin kicks to compensate for the hangovers and lack of sleep. We set ourselves a challenge: how much steam could we let off in one day? I set my pulse racing a 3 7 little early, electrocuting myself in my room as I tried to jam a power converter into a wall socket. The first of our scheduled set pieces was to be a dash to the nearest natural wonder. Having flown 5,200 miles from London, it seemed preposterous not to travel another 120 to visit the Grand Canyon. We wanted to visit the Hualapai native Indians' new Skywalk: a walkway that juts out 65ft from the rim, allowing a clear view through the glass floor to the rocks 700ft below. But we couldn't find a helicopter to fly us directly there at two hours' notice. Instead, for $404 each, we bought our way on to an A-Star chopper already scheduled to fly out over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead to the canyon.
A mere 90 minutes after my first phone call, a black stretch arrived to transfer us to the airfield, where we paid and were weighed like livestock. Within three minutes of taking off, we were thundering along above the Strip casinos – mirrored aviator sunglasses on, thick earphones drowning out the rotor clatter and pumping in rock music – past the golden shimmering Mandalay Bay, the ersatz Luxor Egyptian pyramid, the mini-Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty at New York New York. Then the pilot banked hard right and headed east towards the foothills, lakes and desert beyond.
It was difficult to be impressed by the Hoover Dam from so high, but the vastness of man-made Lake Mead, the fast-receding source of Vegas's water, was stunning. Then, 30 bumpy minutes later, the Indiana Jones theme tune faded away and the pounding chords of Ride of the Valkyries soared through the earphones. We're here! The burning red rock opened beneath us to reveal a screaming chasm in the Colorado Plateau. We dove down into the Grand Canyon, flying between two awesome vertical cliffs to land on the bank of the muddy Colorado River and eat our picnic lunch in the dripping heat. We spent half an hour on the floor, enough to snack and take pictures, before taking off to the anthem from Top Gun. Back in Vegas, we flew the full length of the Strip, starting with the Stratosphere tower and ticking off the casinos all the way to the airport.
In the back of yet another courtesy stretch limo, a young Danish man and his wife turned to me. "Excuse me," he said. "Do you know the way to the places for seeing good strip?" An unusual request, but I was happy to suggest Club Paradise, Spearmint Rhino, Sapphire and the " ultralounge" Seamless – establishments I felt certain would sate the couple's curiosity. They got out at the Luxor. A fellow limo guest then disclosed that the Scandinavians had actually been seeking a restaurant with a nice view of the Strip, somewhere comfortable to take their children and parents. Hopefully they enjoyed their evening.
Back at the Rio: a change of shirt and a cab north in search of terror at the Stratosphere tower, which at 1,149ft is the tallest building in the US west of the Mississippi River. The two attractions at the Stratosphere sit more than 100 storeys above its ratty casino and bland shops: the extreme thrill rides on the roof, and the panoramic views afforded by its smart rotating lounge and restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors.
At the base of the building, tourists undergo airport-style security checks before queuing for the double-decker lifts, which launch skyward at an ear-popping three floors per second (21mph). Our dare was to go on all three rides, one after the other. First up was a contraption called Big Shot. Riders are strapped into seats facing outwards and then suddenly launched up a spire on the Stratosphere roof, accelerating to 45 vertical mph. You experience 4g of force. Then the power cuts. There is a magical instance of weightlessness at the 1,081ft point, before you plummet back down the spire again and are squashed with negative g-force. Attendants direct wobbly riders to a counter to purchase photographs of their gurning faces.
Second up: Insanity. The appropriately named ride is an acrophobic's nightmare version of the fairground swings. Seats hang from a claw-like mechanical arm which swings 60ft away from the edge of the building, suspending you 1,000 feet up in the open air. The seats spin, rotating you at an angle of 70 degrees to the vertical – forcing you to stare straight down on to the ant-like traffic and the sunbaked earth of Downtown Las Vegas. You are held in by a meagre padded safety bar over your thighs; there is no upper body restraint.
About 20 seconds in I thought I might lose my mind. The ride photograph, which I did not buy, shows me shamefully holding on to not only my own safety bar but also the one belonging to my neighbour. Who needs the Skywalk? Then, finally, mercifully, came X-Scream: eight seats on a sliding rail that tilt out over the edge of the building and hurl you face-first 30 feet off the edge of the tower. This was intense. One woman assumed the airplane "brace" position five seconds into the ride and did not move until it stopped two minutes later. We completed all three rides in 19 minutes. The experience cost $24.95 (£12.50).
For still-bigger kicks, I can only suggest The Gun Store, out east on Tropicana Avenue, where you can "STOP BY AND SHOOT A LIVE MACHINE GUN!" as the adverts promise. The walls of this sadist's sweetshop carry racks of handguns, assault rifles, tasers, knives, ammo belts and armour. No previous experience of firing fully automatic weapons is required. You just walk in the door, sign away liability, pick a weapon, buy 50 rounds of ammunition for $40 (£20), slide on your protective ear muffs and goggles, and walk out the back with your instructor to the range, to shred the faces of an array of paper villains: Saddam; Osama; two generic Arabs; and a woman with a male companion, known to instructors as "the ex-wife and her attorney". The staff cheerfully deliver motivational mottos: "Happiness is a warm machine gun."
We were already shaking, wild-eyed, babbling and exhausted from the amusement rides, however, so hailed a taxi back to the Rio. There was only one thing for it: peel off the clothes, immerse oneself in cold water, find a nice Hawaiian shirt, smart jeans and shoes. Then cab it over to Steve Wynn's eponymous casino to begin our last night in Vegas with fine dining.
Fifteen years ago, eating in Las Vegas was, apparently, more of a gamble than gambling in Las Vegas. An influx of superchefs means that now even low-rollers can opt for gourmet cuisine rather than head for the steak house or the buffet bar. Special occasions might be celebrated at the Mandalay's Aureole restaurant, home to celebrity chef Charlie Palmer as well as a wine tower holding 10,000 bottles that are reached by "wine fairies", acrobatically hoisted up and down on pulleys. The best buffets are those at the Bellagio and the seafood spread at the Rio. At the Wynn's plush Tableau restaurant, we were under-dressed and rowdy, but the service – in contrast to much of the service in Vegas, which is terrible unless there's the suggestion of a decent tip – was subtle and fast. Tableau's American cuisine is justifiably expensive: the seven-course tasting menu ($115/£57.50) was tempting but I went for Dungeness crab and mascarpone ravioli ($23/£11.50) followed by roasted Colorado rack of lamb with butternut squash soufflé ($47/£23.50), accompanied by a bottle of something red, full-bodied and pricey.
With the scarcest of glances at the bill, we bolted down the hallway to the Grail Theater for Eric Idle's Monty Python musical, Spamalot. The show has been condensed to 90 minutes with no interval: Wynn wants punters to get the hell back out on to his casino floor. It has also been adapted for Sin City by boosting the breast count and writing in Vegas-style nuptials. The gags were hit-and-miss, but the audience warmed to the show's silliness and heartily greeted the curtain. We bought beer in enormous "Holy Grail" goblets and headed for Caesars Palace, where we doubled our bankroll.
I assumed that I would hate Vegas. It is one giant, seedy billionaire racket at the consumer's expense. But the empowering, naked escapism of this Disneyland-for-the-corrupted means I'm already plotting a return. Oh dear.
Las Vegas is served non-stop by Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) from Gatwick and by business class-only airline MAXjet (0800 023 4300; www.maxjet.com) from Stansted. Numerous other airlines can get you there via various US hubs.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).
Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, 3700 West Flamingo Road, Las Vegas (001 702 777 7777; www.harrahs.com). As is usual in Las Vegas, rates vary depending on demand and the day of the week, with suites costing anything from $90 (£45) to $305 (£153) at weekends, room only.
Shark Reef, Mandalay Bay Resort (001 877 632 7800; www.mandalaybay.com). Open daily 10am-11pm; $15.95 (£8).
Sundance Helicopters (001 702 736 0606; www.helicoptour.com) operates several helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon. Prices start at $325 (£163) per person for a two and-a-half hour tour.
Big Shot, Insanity and X-Scream are based at the Stratosphere Tower, 2000 Las Vegas Blvd S (001 702 380 7777; www.stratospherehotel.com).
Tower admission $10.95 (£5.50), individual rides $9 (£4.50), or combined admission and rides package $24.95 (£12.50).
Grand Canyon Skywalk (001 877 716 9378; www.grandcanyonskywalk.com). Open daily 7am-8pm; basic admission $81.20 (£40.60).
EATING & DRINKING THERE
Aureole, Mandalay Bay Resort (001 702 632 7401; www.aureolelv.com).
Tableau, Wynn Las Vegas (001 702 248 3463; www.wynnlasvegas.com).
Las Vegas Tourism: 001 702 892 0711; www.visitlasvegas.com
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