Waking up in Vegas

I came to Las Vegas with more than a little trepidation. Stephen has been here three times on field schools with students, and was keen for me to see it as well. “You’ve gotta go at least once,” was his sales pitch and when our friends Lorne and Anne decided to meet up with us, it was a done deal. They would fly in from Toronto; we would park our trailer in the hotel’s back lot, and we’d hit the town together for three nights and two days.

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They did not dream up the old marketing tagline “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” with us in mind. We stayed up each night a couple of hours past our usual bedtimes and that is about as nasty as we got. Even our gambling was lame. Stephen popped a dollar bill in a slot machine and when he was up ($3.60), I made him cash his voucher in. Judging by the cashier’s expression, this was a Vegas first. A few more dollars swallowed up in the slot machines proved the old maxim, “The house never loses, ” but it was cheap entertainment and good fun.

We booked at Tuscany Suites, which proved to be an ideal choice – a 27-acre oasis with two pools, a number of stucco and tile low-rise buildings, beautiful 650 m. suites and a 15-minute walk to the Strip.

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We’ve all seen enough images of the Vegas Strip to know what it looks like, but it was surprisingly nicer than I had imagined. The Vegas that most tourists see is divided into two distinct areas – the new Strip, built since the 70’s, all glossy theme mega-hotels and casinos, and the original Las Vegas (Bugsy Siegel, Sinatra and the Golden Nugget), located in the city’s downtown. Over the years, that area had become quite seedy and rundown, but in the early 2000’s, it was revitalized as the Fremont Experience and Fremont East. It now draws tourists by the thousands in search of the city’s history and old-school neon. We began with the Strip. It is possible to ride the four-mile Strip by bus, but we wanted to see as much as possible on foot.

Every hotel has a casino attached. Most hotels have exclusive shops – Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci. The Fashion Show Mall is another draw – with 250 stores, including Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. Shopping is as big a draw as gambling and drinking.

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New York, New York. Outside – the facades of many famous New York landmarks. Inside – tenement street scenes, pizza parlours, wrought iron fire escapes.

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The Venetian Hotel. The gondoliers  glide along the canal into the hotel, which resembles a street in Venice.

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The exterior facade of the Venetian Hotel.

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The magnificent 5-star Wynn Hotel

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We took a break from the street to stop at the Wynn for a drink in their lakeside lounge. Lorne and Anne basking in the sun.

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Caesar’s Palace – 4000 rooms

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Las Vegas is going through an unprecedented building boom. Currently there are 151,000 hotel rooms with a 95-100% occupancy rate and there are no end of new hotel projects in sight. Demand is huge; fuelled in large part by the 50+ traveller seeking sun, sights and a palatable comfort level of “sin”.  Bugsy would be mortified.

Not for one minute to suggest the seedy side of life isn’t here. This mobile billboard was one of many – Vegas’ own particular brand of room service.

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If you prefer to shell out a few bucks for a souvenir photo with showgirls, that’s another option.

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The Chippendales were out in force as well; seeking photo ops with bills tucked suggestively into their low-slung, well-endowed pants. Anne and I did not partake.

Of course, Vegas at night is the big draw – the shows, the bling, the outrageous street scene. We didn’t take in any shows, other than listening to an excellent singer and band at our hotel the first night. The action on the street, the people-watching and the bright lights were entertainment enough.

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The Flamingo Hotel neon, with the age-defying Osmond siblings still performing after all these years.

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Harrahs Hotel

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Bellagio, with its famous fountain. Every 15 minutes or so, the fountain rises up in a symphony of song.

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Food and drink are a big attraction in Vegas. There are a number of very exclusive, celebrity chef establishments; as well as the gamut of bistro/pub/American/pizza/sushi joints – a dazzling selection for every taste and pocketbook.

If your tastes run to excess, The Heart Attack Grill is right up your alley. We stumbled upon it by accident – Elvis was standing outside, smoking and checking his phone.

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Coincidently, he had positioned himself under the sign that entices,” Anyone over 350 pounds eats for free.

Food porn takes on a whole new meaning here. Heart Attack Grill customers are required to don a hospital gown and be administered to by scantily-clad “nurses” as they make their way through 6-patty burgers. Peering in through the windows is akin to slowing by a car wreck. Pill bottles and cigarettes are part of the jaunty decor.

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Even pizza is all dolled-up, for Pete’s sake. “Pin-up pizza”, when Domino’s just won’t do, although it’s unlikely your delivery person will bear any resemblance to this creature.

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In the mood for sugar? The Sugar Factory (maker of Sugar Pops, endorsed by Rihanna and the Kardashian/Jenner tribe) also makes these sugar goblets. I asked this young man if I could take a photo – his sister and mother are out of range, but it would appear that they will be sharing six goblets and three rubber duckie siphons.

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Okay – now we are going to the dark side – Fremont Street, the original Las Vegas. We took a 40-minute bus ride out, and we dropped right into “The Fremont Experience”, much of it under a covered pedestrian-only walkway.

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The Golden Nugget, in operation since 1946, is still around.

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The Fremont Experience is a cross-section of nostalgia, cheap food, souvenirs, hustlers, scam artists, pickpockets, and hookers. Music blasts from all corners, zipline adventurers fly overhead, and buskers of dubious levels of talent compete for tourists. It is utterly overwhelming.

From the hopeful: Michael Jackson moves

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To the discipline of the “policewomen”

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To the decent sax player:

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There is one in every crowd.  At some point the beer takes over and not even the hula hooper on stage can distract this man from his groove.

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We also saw bored table dancers, shifty young men moving through the crowds, and seriously disadvantaged people panhandling. Overall, we found Fremont to be a distressing and upsetting place – the underbelly is very close to the surface.

Forty million visitors arrive in Vegas each year, and many millions of dollars are left in the casinos. But the money doesn’t trickle down very evenly; many, many people in Las Vegas are not okay.

Tourists don’t come to Vegas to do socio-economic and/or environmental assessments; this is a three-to-four day escape from winter, responsibilities, kids; and fair enough.

I’m glad I saw Vegas – I doubt I will be back. It hurts my heart to see young women being exploited. This is not the land of “university student paying her way through med school” or “welder by day, dancer at night.”

We softened the impact of Vegas by heading a half-hour out of town to Sloan Conservation for a hike in the canyon to see the petroglyphs. It was a bit more strenuous of a hike than we had planned on, but a perfect antidote.

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On reflection, we had a wonderful time hanging out together, and had fun with the craziness of it all. We came to the same conclusion. You have to take Vegas for exactly what it is, and not fuss about what it’s not. It’s not a judgement about people’s needs and tastes.  If there wasn’t a market of all of this, Vegas wouldn’t exist.

Our friends left this morning, and we’ve spent the day getting organized for the next leg of our trip – a few days in Joshua Tree National Park.