Viva Las Vegas

Rick Barnes
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Las Vegas

There is an oasis in the Mojave Desert where thirsty travelers, following the Old Spanish Trail from Texas, refreshed themselves with cool water from the valley’s artesian wells.

This splash of greenery in the desert became known as The Meadows — or in Spanish, Las Vegas.

Today, the glittering city of half a million people (with another million in the metro area) is an oasis of amusement in the harsh desert environment, boldly calling itself “The Entertainment Capital of the World” — and with good reason.

We arrived at McCarran International airport (a hub with many private jets lying about) at the edge of Las Vegas to sunshine and 25 C, and drove past the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.

The seven-kilometre portion of the palm-tree-lined Las Vegas Boulevard, known as the Strip, is the home of mega-resort hotels like the Luxor with its giant sphinx and pyramid, and the Venetian — complete with canals, gondolas and St. Mark’s Square, minus the pigeons.

These bits of Egypt and Italy share the Strip with a model of the Eiffel tower and streets of Paris, a Statue of Liberty and a complete New York skyline.

Towering above the palms are icons like Caesar’s Palace, the Bellagio with its dancing fountains, the Mirage’s hourly volcanic eruptions, and Treasure Island, where pirate ships battle and sink every night in spectacular pyrotechnic displays.

At the hearts of these mega-resorts are Nevada’s famous cash cows — the casinos. The “one-armed bandits” still have their chrome arms, but you no longer need to pull the handle, just push a button for music and all sorts of video themes. The machines roar away 24/7, competing for gambling dollars with inscrutable board games and the aptly-named “craps.”

“It’s easy to play craps,” one Vegas comic said, “you put your money on the table and they take it.”

Once backed by organized crime, the casinos are now a legitimate part of the giant entertainment and resort industry, but for us, the Vegas casino scene is like a trip back in time. It’s odd seeing scantily-clad young women sporting bunny ears selling cigars and cigarettes to patrons who smoke them, in public!      

The Strip is choked with vehicles but the traffic moves along pretty well, with plenty of Cadillacs, Jaguars and even Bugattis rolling alongside stretch Hummers and limos. On-street parking is non-existent but the resorts and all the shopping centres (there are many) have cavernous parking garages, and they are happy to have you park for free.

Even in the dense downtown area, you can park for free if you have your parking ticket stamped at the casino cage. They want you in there.

Fremont Street, the heart of original gambling strip in downtown Vegas, is being rejuvenated to draw the younger set. The neon cowboys now overlook a zip line that runs along a pedestrian mall area where free rock concerts blare away under the cover of a “roof” that is a giant video screen.

Many of the original neon signs that once gave the area the name “Glitter Gultch” have been restored as museum pieces.

Our Venetian suite (booked online) didn’t have a great view, so for a few more dollars Wife negotiated a suite with free wireless on the 27th floor of the Venetian’s new tower, the Palazzo. It was a roomy two-level suite outfitted with a fax machine and two phone lines (available even in the toilet cubicle, with a hold button, on the phone that is), perhaps a hangover from the days before iPhones and email became ubiquitous.

The rented white sedan didn’t come with a remote door lock — I thought it a minor inconvenience at the time, but it turned out to be a nuisance finding the car in the gargantuan parking garages, and there are a lot of white sedans in Vegas.

I once mislaid a Renault in Paris and on another occasion, lost Daughter’s Explorer in the heart of Vancouver.

There is always a crush of people walking the Strip — young women pushing strollers and old men with walkers make their way past hawkers with LED T-shirts, street mimes, show promoters, casino promoters, a string of people handing out picture cards with phone numbers for escort services and exotic dancers, panhandlers, and official-looking people in dress pants and white shirts collecting for the (estimated 14,000) homeless in Las Vegas.

Early one morning I discovered a filthy Winnie the Pooh with his honey pot out, begging — a sight that would take some explaining for a five-year-old.

In one of the two theatres at our resort, they built a Paris opera house — complete with 60 or more figures in period dress looking on — to stage “Phantom of the Opera.” I don’t think the production was as smooth as shows I’ve seen on Broadway, but the staging and effects were stunning.

During the dramatic opening, with a giant chandelier flying about, a couple stumbled and fumbled their way into seats next to me — like in the Viagra commercials — but even after they were seated they continued talking. And, not just scattered comments injected at strategic places in the show, they were shouting over the music and vocals.

I know it wasn’t the opera, but still, we paid $66 a seat to take in the show and the chatty neighbours were a real nuisance. I suffered for a while, then finally leaned over to buddy and said, “You’re not going to talk for the rest of the evening, are you?”

His partner wasn’t the least bit apologetic. She shouted back at me that her buddy didn’t understand English very well and she was translating, but thankfully, they shut up.

Because “Phantom” was at our hotel, the show music continually played in elevators and the parking garage, and it became the soundtrack for searching for the elusive white sedan — we called it “Phantom of the Elevator.”

Just up the street, at the Imperial Palace, a carpeted section of their parking garage holds what the Imperial promotes as “The world’s largest classic car collection.”

And with everything from the Dodge Johnny Carson drove to his senior prom, to a ’48 Cadillac — one of only two styled by French designer Jacques Saoutchik — to a Rolls Royce custom built for a tiger-hunting maharaja, the claim is probably true.

Certainly, they must have the largest collection of old Rolls Royce iron in the world (including one outfitted with a toilet that the accompanying literature insists was only used to chill champagne), and most are for sale! With prices ranging from a couple of hundred thousand dollars to $1.5 million, I didn’t ask for any test drives.  

We saw an eclectic mix of shows on the Strip — ’60s music from the Platters, the Coasters, and the Marvelettes (“Please Mr. Postman”), Frank Marino’s group of female impersonators (running in Vegas for 27 years — Frank even has a street named after him) and, at Bellagio, Quebec-based Cirque du Soleil’s dream-like “O” — one of seven amazing Cirque shows currently playing in Vegas — which, incredibly, features a stage that transforms back and forth from solid to a pool of water deep enough for players to leap into from scary heights.

The characters, ranging from nightmarish to comic — plus a quartet of Mongolian contortionists with unpronounceable names thrown in for good measure — were in and out of the pool all evening, their antics accompanied by music and song.

There was a Newfoundland connection, too — the haunting live vocals were performed by St. John’s chanteuse Zipporah Peddle, a five-year veteran of Cirque, who traded moose and fog for the geckos and endless sunshine (300-plus days a year) of the Nevada desert.

Nevada’s clear dry weather is ideal for many projects, and in the late ’40s, the Manhattan Project scientists set up shop just North of Vegas and began testing atomic bombs. The folks in Vegas were soon watching giant mushroom clouds on the horizon and some worried it would be bad for business — but not in the Home of the Brave.

Entrepreneurs embraced the cloud and flooded their shops with coffee mugs, T-shirts, and beer coolers sporting mushroom clouds — some even held mushroom cloud parties.

The testing eventually moved underground, riddling the desert landscape with scores of pockmarks from underground explosions that generated such heat, it turned the sand to glass. You can trace this bit of Cold War history, see bombs and other scary-looking artifacts, and amazing videos and charts that document Nevada’s role in developing atomic weapons at the Atomic Testing Museum in Vegas. There’s even a section devoted to Area 51 — the top secret installation attached to the U.S. air force base at nearby Groom Lake.

I’d like to tell you more about Area 51, but they make you swear to secrecy — and I’m afraid they would find out.

We tore ourselves away from the Strip for the scenic half-day drive to the Grand Canyon in neighbouring Arizona. Approaching the canyon, there are no clues in the surrounding landscape of park-like pine forest of the incredible sights to come. Suddenly, there it is — a great jagged gouge in the earth up to 29 km wide that seems to go on forever.

On the first afternoon, we watched, awestruck, from the canyon’s edge as the sun set, putting on a light show that changed the colours of the oddly shaped buttes and pinnacles formed by the effects of millions of years of erosion on layers of ancient rock — it’s no wonder the indigenous people consider the canyon a holy place.

There are a number of fenced observation points, but along most of the rim you can walk right to the edge and peep down at the Colorado River winding its way along the canyon floor for over 400 km, a breathtaking 1.6 km below.

We spent the night at a nearby hotel and explored the southern rim of the canyon for a good part of the next day before circling through Flagstaff and then back towards Vegas.

On the return drive, we followed a portion of the old “Mother Road” — the legendary Route 66. This Chicago to L.A. highway has been the backdrop for American stories from “The Grapes of Wrath” to the groundbreaking (and Corvette-selling) ’60s television series called, of course, “Route 66.”

The storied two-lane, now dotted with boutiques selling Route 66 memorabilia and decorated with rusting cars, James Dean posters and Elvis figures, was all but deserted, America’s travellers leaving it behind for the fast lanes of the interstate highway.

Back in Vegas, our time running short with yet so much to see, I stole away for a morning ride in a stock car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR driver Richard Petty has a stable of cars and driver — instructors available for hire.

For $150, Joe, a professional driver, took me roaring around the track for six laps at speeds over 270 km/h — almost three times our TCH speed.

I had a lot of questions for Joe, but the din from the 600-plus horsepower Dodge made conversation impossible and it was probably better I didn’t distract him — the track looks pretty narrow at that pace.

For $500, you can drive the car yourself. I’m saving my allowance.

Organizations: The Meadows, Rolls Royce, Imperial Palace Cirque du Soleil Atomic Testing Museum Las Vegas Motor Speedway NASCAR

Geographic location: Las Vegas Boulevard, Nevada, Paris Mojave Desert Texas Egypt Italy New York Treasure Island Fremont Street Broadway U.S. Newfoundland Manhattan Grand Canyon Arizona Colorado River Flagstaff Chicago L.A.

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  • Stephen
    May 10, 2012 - 13:46

    Been in Vegas twice and look forward to going again. Never gamble when there, but never seem to find enough time to take in all the other things that Vegas offers. A great holiday spot with lots of options for all tastes.

  • David
    May 09, 2012 - 16:20

    The saddest place on Earth. Very disturbing to see it up close.